On the shelf: August 2022 reads

I binge read my way through August with a total of 14 books! I read:

  • The Idea of You by Robinne Lee
  • The Truth about Lisa Jewell by Will Brooker
  • A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins
  • The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey
  • An Unfamiliar Landscape by Amanda Huggins (short story collection – proof)
  • The Drift by C J Tudor (proof)
  • Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas
  • What I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton
  • The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell
  • Both of You by Adele Parks
  • Magpie by Elizabeth Day
  • The Secrets of the Storm Forest: The Strangeworlds Travel Agency #3 by L D Lapinski
  • Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
  • The Road Trip by Beth O’Leary

The Idea of You was a Richard and Judy pick and a fun read. It’s a romance between a woman in her late 30s and a member of a boyband with all the trials and tribulations of a relationship under the spotlight.

The Truth about Lisa Jewell is a non-fiction book charting a year in the life of bestselling author, Lisa Jewell. I enjoyed the insight into her writing process and her moments of doubt and triumph. This book would particularly appeal to writers.

The Mermaid of Black Conch was a beautifully written story which stayed with me long after I finished it. I enjoyed the different voices in this book and the way it explores themes of misogyny and colonialism through a traditional mermaid tale.

An Unfamiliar Landscape was a review copy of Amanda Huggins’ latest collection of short stories. Huggins’ atmospheric and evocative prose has the power to transport you to places all over the globe while tunnelling deep into your soul. The tiniest details make the greatest impact as Huggins explores grief, relationships and self-discovery. A masterclass in short form fiction.

C J Tudor is one of my favourite writers so I practically mugged her at Harrogate Crime Writing Festival for a proof of her latest novel, The Drift, which will be out in January 2023. This is quite a departure for C J Tudor in terms of genre but has the same page-turning element of her other books, with a clever twist.

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas was recommended to me by author Abby Davies, and I thought it was absolutely brilliant. I have also bought the workbook that goes with it and am making my way through it. Maas dissects every aspect of what makes a novel become a bestseller and encourages you to dedicate yourself to improving your own writing. Following all the advice in this book will be hard work, but I think it will be worth it! Definitely one I will be rereading many times.

Magpie by Elizabeth Day was one of the best books I read this month. It’s very well written and very dark. I loved the twist and the conclusion. It was a very accomplished thriller, and I am looking forward to reading her other books.

I’m really pleased that I have read Half of a Yellow Sun because I didn’t know much about the civil war in Nigeria in the 1960s. It was a very distressing read at times and I struggled with it for that reason, but I was glad I persevered. I loved the characters who will stay with me for a very long time.

After that I needed a lighter read, and I really enjoyed The Road Trip by Beth O’Leary. Imagine spending a long car journey to a wedding with your ex! That’s the situation Addie and Dylan find themselves in this romantic comedy.

Writing a Book: Week Four – Getting Creative

My first draft is MESSY! Really messy!

Yesterday I decided to change the plot extensively. It was too predictable. Everything felt like it had been done before. The plot felt OK when I did the synopsis but when I came to actually writing the scenes, I found I was getting bored and that wasn’t a good sign.

So, I gave my characters free rein. One of them decided to marry the bad guy – which definitely wasn’t in my original plan – and a new point-of-view voice emerged. My main characters also aged a decade. They might go back to being younger at some point.  

I’ve lost control of my story!

But I think that’s a good thing. It’s alright having a plan, but if it’s not working, then you just have to throw it out of the window and see what happens. There is no point in resolutely sticking to a plan that you know isn’t right.

Life has taken over a bit this week and as a result, I have slipped behind on my schedule. I had planned to write the first 20,000 words of the first draft by the end of August, but I have only managed 16,028.

I am not overly worried about this. I have redone my schedule so instead of aiming to finish the first draft by Christmas, I have given myself another month. As this book is not under contract, this isn’t a problem. Hopefully I will now finish the first draft by the end of January 2023.

Writing a book, week 3: developing characters

This week I have been mostly working on and thinking about the main character (MC) in my novel.

At the moment, my entire story is told from a single point of view, which is unusual for me. There are two timelines, so my character is talking in the past and in the current day (and at times, when she was a young teenager) so in total there are three voices, all belonging to the same character. I am trying to make these voices different because circumstances have changed her outlook on life. All of them are written in close third person.   

There are lots of personality quizzes you can complete online to develop your characters, but I find the best way to get to know my characters is just to write and think like them as much as possible. I often do ‘free writing’ where I will write as my character about what is happening to me or something that’s in the news. None of this goes into the book, but it helps me get a feel for their perspective on things and find out what they care about.

I also like to write out a character’s whole life story from when they were born (including details like their parents, siblings, grandparents) until the day they die even if that is not in the book. I like to know everything I can about their whole life before the action starts. This includes things like what kind of clothes they wear or what music they like.

I don’t spend a lot of time describing the physical appearance of my characters, unless it is relevant to the plot. I think most readers prefer to use their imagination but if I have written that they have blonde hair or green eyes, I make a note of that to make sure I am consistent.

A question some writers ask is ‘what does my character want?’. They then make it increasingly difficult for the character to achieve it. This creates conflict. Another question is ‘what does my character need?’ which is often different from what they think they want. That creates resolution because at some point they will have to give up what they desire for what they really need.  

I have had a few moments of doubt this week, largely because I feel like I don’t know much about the setting of the novel and need to do some research. I have tried to power through my doubts as I know I can work on that in the editing. For now, it’s more important to get those words down!

Progress week 3: 12,010 words

Writing a book, week 2 – finding time to write

When do you write? Do you write every day? Are you at your best first thing in the morning or late at night? Do you snatch 15 minutes to write in between a busy schedule or are you able to dedicate large chunks of undisturbed time to your writing?

I’m lucky in that I can usually find time to write most weeks. I don’t tend to write every day and I can’t spend hours and hours writing. I usually find my brain tires after a couple of hours of intense work. I work best in the morning and find it harder to get the words out by the evening.

Here are some tips I have found helpful to find the time, and the headspace, to write:

  1. Schedule writing time into your calendar and stick to it. You might want to do this at the start of the week or even at the start of every day. Treat it like an appointment with a friend and only cancel it if you really have no choice in the matter. Ask your family not to disturb your writing time.
  2. Cut back on television and checking your social media accounts. These activities can be used as treats when you have finished your writing for the day. But do your writing first!
  3. Be realistic – it’s better to write 200 words in a session than plan to write 1,000 and not find the time because you’ve set your goal too high.   
  4. If it’s really difficult to find time in the day to write, consider following the principles of the 5AM Club and get up an hour earlier than your household so you can work when everyone else is asleep. It’s tough but I found that I was really productive first thing in the morning. Less so by the afternoon!
  5. Use ‘dead time’ for thinking – when you’re waiting for someone, cooking tea or washing up. Keep a notebook handy for flashes of inspiration.
  6. Reward yourself – use a tick sheet or a reward chart to monitor your progress and give yourself a treat for completing your weekly and monthly goals.
  7. Switch your WiFi off when writing and leave your phone in another room. In Word, you can set the view to focus and your notifications to do not disturb. You may find you work more efficiently with fewer distractions.
  8. Try the Pomodoro Technique – set yourself a timer for say 20 minutes and in that time do nothing but write. You cannot look things up on the internet, check your phone, make a cup of tea or even go to the loo during this time. After 20 minutes you can have five minutes to rest and then set yourself another timer. You will race through your word count in no time.
  9. NaNoWriMo is a great way to motivate yourself to write. Although it happens every November, you can follow its principles at any time. Set yourself an ambitious goal for the month and do your very best to achieve it.
  10. Find a writing buddy or group to share progress with. Cheer each other on with positive comments.

Go easy on yourself – this is a marathon, not a sprint. If you’re feeling tired, do something less taxing, like some internet research or some light editing. Or set yourself a tiny target – just 100 words a day maybe – it soon builds up.  

At the end of the second week, the word count for my new book stands at 9,020 words. I am currently aiming for 20,000 by the end of August so I am on schedule. This won’t last!

Writing a book, Week One – the blank page

Is there anything worse than staring at a blank page? You have all these ideas but the minute you open that notebook or Word document, you don’t know where to start.

I think the main problem I face when starting a book is that I want everything to be perfect. I want that first line to be brilliant, quotable even. I want that opening page to shine. But usually at this point I just have some random thoughts that have no coherence. I don’t want to make a mess of that first page.  

The solution to the blank page? Start writing. Don’t worry about the quality. You can come back and fix that later. Don’t worry if you’re not starting at the beginning of the story. Don’t worry if it doesn’t make much sense. Just write whatever comes into your head. It may not make the final cut but that’s fine. The important thing is to get the words out.

Tell yourself this is draft zero, the ‘vomit draft’, and that everything will be edited many, many times. It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to exist.  

I started my new book on Monday, 1 August. It’s a novel I first started writing in 2018 but I abandoned it after 30,000 words. I know where I went wrong and my main character – Kelly – has been in the back of my mind ever since, wanting me to tell her story.

So how do you start a novel? Well, every writer is different, but I started by re-reading some craft books. My favourite is How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermason. I don’t follow this method to the letter but it’s the one that works best for me. You alternate working on your plot and developing your characters so when you get stuck on one you shift over to the other. You also start with the synopsis and then expand out which works for me as I don’t always write chronologically.

I also like Stealing Hollywood: Screenwriting Tricks for Authors by Alexandra Sokoloff. Sokoloff recommends the four-act structure which is similar to a three-act structure but with a significant midpoint.

This time around, I am reading Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. This was recommended by a writing friend of mine and it’s the first time I’ve read it. It’s a bit intimidating but it is making me up my game.  

The first thing I did was sketch out what I know about the plot so far and the main characters. I sort of know what is going to happen at the beginning, middle and end although I’m not 100% sure how I am going to structure the story yet. There are three chunks of time in the novel and I’m not sure whether to present them chronologically or have two timelines running concurrently. I’m going to worry about that later.

I put together 20 plot points which will take me from the start to the end, but I may move things around a bit. This is enough for me to start writing. 20 plot points is 20 scenes and, at around 500 words each, that will give me the first 10,000 words. I will then go back and expand each scene and add others in between.

I don’t always start writing at chapter one. I write whatever interests me at the time, so I may write later scenes, but I do try to keep them in some sort of order.

I write in a Word document, and I label each scene with a heading so I can easily move them around. Some people use Scrivener for this, but I prefer Word. I usually number my scenes but for some reason, I want to name them this time. That may well change, but it feels right for this book at the moment.

I am aiming for 4,000 words a week, but I managed 6,175 words in my first week. This was largely because I transferred some across from my original draft. I knew I wanted to keep at least two scenes even though the rest of the book is going to change. At this stage I am not doing much research, but I keep a running list of what I need to find out about.

In between writing sessions, I keep a notebook with me at all times, and every time I have a spare 20 minutes or so, I sketch out ideas. Sometimes these are lists of things I want to include, or they might be snippets of conversation between the characters or free writing when I write whatever comes into my head.

I am aiming to complete this first draft before Christmas (4,000 words a week for 20 weeks) but I know other things will get in the way, so I just have to hope for the best! 

On the shelf: July 2022 reads

In July 2022, I read:

  • Life of an MP by Jess Phillips (research)
  • The Quickening by Rhiannon Ward
  • The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
  • Such a Good Mother by Helen Monks Takhar (proof)
  • Sea Defences by Hilary Taylor (proof)
  • Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday
  • Next of Kin by Kia Abdullah
  • The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

A character in the book I am working on at the moment is a local MP, so I read Jess Phillip’s book to get an insight into life in politics. This was a really helpful look at the role of an MP and some of the challenges and frustrations they face. I would recommend this to anyone interested in looking at what happens behind the scenes in Westminster.

Rhiannon Ward also writes thrillers as Sarah Ward, and I have read some of her crime books, so I thought I would give her historical fiction a go. Set in post-first world war England, this is about a female photographer in an unhappy second marriage who is commissioned to take pictures for a house sale. Heavily pregnant, Louisa becomes embroiled in a recreation of an infamous séance and is warned there is a curse on the house. This was a little slow in places for my taste, but I found the plot got moving in the second half of the book and by the end, I was gripped by this gothic mystery.

Sticking with historical fiction, I also read The Mercies, which was a Richard and Judy pick some time ago. I enjoyed Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Girl of Ink and Stars and I think she is wonderful writer. The Mercies is set in an Arctic village in 1621. A ferocious storm leaves a community devastated. As they are starting to pick up their lives, a delegation from Scotland arrive to stamp out suspected witchcraft. This was an evocative and atmospheric book. I loved the descriptions of everyday life in the island and the horrible realisation what the men are going to do and how powerless the women are to stop them. This is a story that is going to stay with me for a long time to come.

I was lucky enough to receive a proof of Helen Monks Takhar’s new book, Such a Good Mother. I loved her first book, and her follow-up does not disappoint. An elite school, a group of bitchy mothers and a woman desperate to get her and her family in the inner circle makes for a gripping plot. This is a deliciously dark and twisty tale which explores the lengths people will go to get what they want. Complex characters, intricate plotting and a satisfying ending.

My second proof was Sea Defences by Hilary Taylor. I met Hilary at a writing conference a few years ago and I am delighted that her debut novel will be published in January 2023. Sea Defences is a brilliant book. I love the way she has created characters that are all good people but come into conflict with each through tragic circumstances. I really enjoyed the setting, and I thought the ending was brilliant. This is a stunning debut: evocative descriptions, strong characterisation and a simmering tension which builds to a thrilling finale. Fans of Broadchurch, in particular, will love this book.

Ego is the Enemy is a book about stoicism. It made for an interesting read, not least because I disagreed with about half of what Holiday said! His persuasive argument was that our suffering comes from our ego and that we would be happier if we always put society and our contribution to the world first. Although this is very noble, I did disagree with some of his comments about being dispassionate about the work that we do and not having personal goals.

Next of Kin by Kia Abdullah is a powerful, heart-wrenching legal drama about a woman on trial for the manslaughter of her baby nephew. I have to say I found some of this book very difficult to read because of the subject matter. Abdullah takes an unflinching look at the way the legal system, and society, treats childless women and the depictions of grief are extremely well done.

The Plot is a book that will particularly appeal to writers. A washed-up creative writing tutor encounters a student who has a brilliant idea for a book. When he finds out that the student has died, the tutor steals the plot, and the book becomes a bestseller. However, the fear of being exposed haunts him and he becomes increasingly unravelled as he receives anonymous messages accusing him of plagiarism. There is a lot of humour in this book and I found it a very enjoyable read.

The Wedding Murders has a new cover!

My second novel, The Wedding Murders, has a new summer jacket!

I must admit I loved the old cover with its bright colour contrast but I think the new jacket is a closer reflection of the story. I particularly love the discarded high heels!

If you love closed-door mysteries, lots of 90s nostalgia, and a fast-paced plot, check out The Wedding Murders on Amazon UK or Amazon US

It’s also available as a paperback from Waterstones.

An interview with… J A Corrigan

I am delighted to welcome fellow crime writer, Julie-Ann Corrigan to my blog. Writing as J A Corrigan, Julie-Ann has published three brilliant psychological thrillers: Falling Suns, The Nurse and The Bad Sister as well as historical fiction under her pen name, Jules Hayes.

Please introduce yourself and your published works

Hi Sarah, and thanks so much for hosting me on your blog.

My name is Julie-Ann Corrigan and I write psychological suspense thrillers as JA Corrigan.

My debut thriller, Falling Suns, was published in 2016 by Headline Accent – a disturbing story about a mother dealing with the abduction and subsequent brutal murder of her young son. The story charts ex-detective Rachel Dune’s quest for revenge and retribution.

My second thriller, The Nurse, was published by Canelo in May 2021.

Again, it’s a story with a strong female protagonist (I like to think this is my literary signature!) – Rose Marlowe. The story opens with Rose being sentenced to 20 years in prison for the murder of a patient in her care. Rose pleaded guilty, but when washed-up journalist Theo Hazel begins visiting her in prison hoping for a ‘scoop’ he questions if in fact she is guilty of the crime. As Rose’s story unfolds, Theo’s intuition turns into hard facts, which he can’t ignore. Is Rose innocent, or is she manipulating Theo. Is she a cold-blooded killer, and a psychopath, or is she a victim of circumstance?

The Bad Sister is my third thriller, and my second  novel published with Canelo. The book released in April 2022.

This time I have 3 strong female protagonists – sisters, Natalie, Jessica and Teresa Keane. Narrated in 2 timelines, with 3 viewpoints (each sister), this is very much my Rubik Cube novel, as well as my lockdown book. I wonder sometimes if the two are connected!

The story opens in 1991 when the Keane family are throwing a party at the family home, the luxurious Raven House, for Teresa’s graduation and engagement. But when a young girl’s body is found on neighbouring Raven Island during the celebrations the family, instead of turning to each other, turn against each other. In the coming years the sisters become estranged, only brought back together more than 20 years later by another female family member, Natalie’s daughter. As the 3 sisters’ secrets begin to unravel, at last they confide in each other, with earth shattering consequences – and the reveal of the final Keane family secret.

When did you start writing? Can you tell me about your journey to publication?

I began writing in 2010, starting with short stories. I was lucky and these stories were published. In 2012 I began writing my first novel, a modern historical thriller set during the Spanish Civil War (I’m a history graduate.) This book was finally published under my pen name, Jules Hayes, in March 2021.

I began writing my first psychological thriller in 2013, this became Falling Suns. I went on to write another historical novel (which I self-published), and then I wrote a genre-straddler, set in Poland/Auschwitz in 1943 and present day UK – a dark thriller and with a detective! This book still sits in my drawer. We all have one… one day I hope it finds the light of day!

In 2018 I began writing The Nurse (although during its conception it did have another title!) This is the book that found me my agent, Camilla Shestopal.

In 2020-21 I wrote The Bad Sister.

What were the pivotal moments so far in your writing career and what have you learned from them?

Eliciting a standing ovation at an Open Mike night at the Hay Literary festival, and at the very beginning of my writing journey, and before I had a complete first manuscript. I thought I’d cracked it and I’d be JK Rowling in no time. Wrong! I think it taught me early on to take these things with a pinch of salt. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

My most recent pivotal moment was when Camilla (my agent) signed me with The Nurse. It’s a book I took a chance on writing – several people during its conception told me it would never be published – and so when the Canelo team offered a contract for the manuscript it was a very sweet moment, and also made me realise that a writer really does have to write what they want to write. Passion, enthusiasm and authenticity shine through.

What kind of research did you need to do for your latest novel, The Bad Sister, and how did you go about it?

The Bad Sister is set on the River Thames, and I was inspired by the location (near to where I live.) I was also inspired by people and families I’ve come into contact with over the years as my child was growing up – however, the story is utterly fictitious!

I did a fair amount of research into what it entails to be a barrister (Teresa’s character) and also a psychiatrist (Jessica’s character.) The original title for the novel was The Psychiatrist, which I rather like, as the plot pivots on what happens to Jessica, but ultimately, the novel was better served by a title signposting family dynamics within the story.

I also had a lot of research help from a criminal court judge, who read the relevant chapters for veracity. She is an amazing woman, who also encouraged me to be a little more edgy with the plot, explaining that much worse happens in real life!

With all of my books I tend to do a lot of research before and whilst writing them.  

Who are your favourite authors?

I have eclectic reading tastes, so I have many favourite authors!

In the thriller genre, my favourites include Alex Marwood, Barbara Vine, Patricia Highsmith, Erin Kelly, Fiona Cummins, and Minnette Walters.

I love DM Thomas (The White Hotel), Kate Atkinson and Cormac McCarthy. Thomas Harris, early Stephen King. Love John Irving, Murakami and yes, Ishiguru. Madeline Miller, Anne Patchett and Michel Faber.

What advice would you give to other people wanting to write?

Sit down and get the words down. I recently began working with a mentee, who was ‘thinking’ about starting a 1st novel. I told him to just write, that I had no care how bad it might be, because there was no way either of us could make it better until he wrote something.

For what it’s worth, with this particular writer, this advice was extremely effective. A big achievement for me (and him) would be to see him secure an agent, and a publisher. The circle for me would be complete.

Write, read. Write, read, and repeat, and live your best life at the same time (interaction with the world is imperative to authentic writing.) Try to find someone who is able to mentor you in those early stages, giving you the latitude to write a story you want to write, with no self consciousness, no inner critic, no negative vista.

Be authentic, to yourself and to your future readers.

Come off social media!

Finally, what are you working on now?

Currently I’m working on a contemporary thriller, and again one of the lead characters is a strong female protagonist, but there is also a detective (a male second lead), and several gruesome murders!

The novel’s themes encompass a pretty zeitgeist topic, as well as honour, love and loyalty. I plan a series with this book. I’m very excited about it.   

You can find out more about J A Corrigan on her website: jacorrigan.com or follow her on social media:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/juliannwriter 

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jacorrigan

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/corriganjulieann/

On the Shelf: June 2022 reads

In June 2022, I read:

  • The Passengers by John Marrs
  • How to Write Like Tolstoy by Richard Cohen
  • The Nurse by J A Corrigan
  • One August Night by Victoria Hislop
  • Not a Happy Family by Shari Lapena
  • The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell
  • The Castaways by Lucy Clarke
  • The Maidens by Alex Michaelides

I was quite looking forward to the advent of driverless cars until I read The Passengers by John Marrs! This is a high-concept thriller about a future world in which driverless cars are the norm. But what happens if they get hacked? This is a fast-paced novel that kept me gripped until the end.

How to Write Like Tolstoy covers all the key aspects of writing a book: plot, structure, character, endings, and polishing prose. It takes examples from classic literature and explains the techniques great authors use to create their works. I enjoyed this book, picked up loads of ideas, and would recommend it to other writers.

I read The Nurse by J A Corrigan because I appeared on a panel with her at Essex Book Festival in June. This is an excellent thriller, told from the point of view of a woman who has confessed to a murder and a journalist who doesn’t believe she’s telling the truth. I loved how the past unravels and the complex relationships between the characters.

One August Night by Victoria Hislop is the long-awaited sequel to The Island. I enjoyed returning to Crete in the late 1950s. The leper colony of Spinalonga has now closed, and the former occupants have returned home, but this brings about major consequences for the people they left behind. I enjoyed this book but would recommend reading The Island first, if you haven’t already.

Shari Lapena never disappoints, and Not a Happy Family is another page-turner. A wealthy couple are found dead in their luxurious home and a number of suspects are set to benefit from their inheritance. But whodunnit? Another great novel from one of my favourite writers, I read this in a couple of days.

The Family Upstairs is the first Lisa Jewell thriller that I’ve read, but it won’t be the last! A great plot with complex characters and evocative settings. I loved all the contrasts in this book, and I particularly liked the character of Henry. The sequel is out now, and I can’t wait to read it.

The Castaways by Lucy Clarke has been on my Kindle for ages, and I can’t believe it took me so long to read it! I absolutely loved this book which has a Lost vibe (but makes more sense) and I am excited to discover a new author. I will definitely be reading her next book, which has just come out, as well as her backlist.

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides is one of my favourite psychological thrillers, so I had high expectations of The Maidens. The two books are quite different, and the book I found myself drawing the most parallels to was The Secret History by Donna Tartt. The books share many of the same elements: an elite group of Classics students, an enigmatic tutor and a murdered student. I liked all the references to Greek mythology and the perspective of the investigating group therapist. Although I guessed the killer quite early on, there was plenty of intrigue to keep me turning the pages.