Books

Book Review – The Crystal Shore

Thanks to the lovely bookish community on Instagram, I have connected with some pretty amazing people.

One of these, is the lovely Jo De-Lancey, author of The Crystal Shore; a swashbuckling adventure featuring a rogues’ gallery of assorted characters, and their tale of mishaps and mayhem.

I had the privilege of being selected as an ARC reader for the aforementioned title, and in the spirit of supporting an indie author, here is my review!

The Crystal Shore centres on roguishly charming charlatan Killian O’Shea and how he gets involved with a wet behind the ears young man, Ren Thorncliffe to seek out an ancient artefact that will help cure Ren’s ailing father.
Teaming up with pirate queen Lily Rothbone, who Killian has a chequered history with, he and Ren prove their worth by taking on a couple of tests before Lily will provide them passage.
On their travels, they encounter killer statues, an ancient temple, an assortment of fantastically written characters, and Killian has to put himself through the ultimate test when he ventures to a hidden world to seek help.
This is a very well written story, which starts off dropping the reader into the action, setting up an unlikely friendship between the two protagonists. Killian is instantly likeable, whilst Ren’s character grows as the story moves on.
The only character I wasn’t entirely convinced by was Lily herself, there were glimpses of her fierce reputation, but in comparison to characters such as Finn, she came across as being quite gentle.
There’s some lovely world building, especially in the Cornelian realm, and the tasks Killian has to take on have just the right amount of tension and pacing.
I’m very much looking forward to the next book in the series to see how this adventure unfolds!

I gave The Crystal Shore 4/5 ⭐️ It’s a well written, assured debut, filled with fully formed characters, and adventure from the first page. If this piques your interest, head over to Jo’s author page on Amazon.

Writing

Read Like A Writer.

To be a good writer requires a lot of reading. Not just in your chosen genre of writing, but widely, across other genres.

What can other genres teach us?

  • Thrillers/Crime – tension, pacing, mystery, plot twists, morally grey characters.
  • Romance – self-explanatory, but relationship dynamics, love triangles, sexual tension, attraction, heartbreak.
  • Horror – as with Thrillers/Crime, but with added supernatural elements, murder mystery, serial killers.
  • Fantasy/Sci-FI – all of the above with added magic, monsters, technological advances, space travel, secondary worlds.

My genre of choice to read and write is fantasy. The worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth shaped my love of all things other worldly when I was very young, and I’ve always been drawn to stories of places and people that only exist in the imagination.

However, the importance of reading other genres is so important and a trawl through my bookshelves reveals titles such as Lord of the Flies, The Hate U Give, Hard Times and the Divine Comedy nestling amongst Brandon Sanderson, Terry Pratchett, and Sarah J Maas titles; to name a few.

Which leads me to the point of this post: Reading as a writer.

This is just as important as reading different genres widely. As a writer, you will learn about characterisation, structure, tone, pace, plot, sub-plots, voice, and point of view. You will also spot things you don’t like, which teaches you about your own writing style and what you are likely to avoid.

For instance, my biggest bugbear is repetition of a phrase. I’ve noticed this in a few books I’ve read, and it comes across to me as if the author thought, “that’s a great phrase!” and they keep on using it. By that time, it’s jumping off the page at me like a flea! When it came to editing my own book, I found I had done exactly the same thing with variations on, looked to be, seemed to be, and appeared to be. I was so annoyed with myself, but at least I was able to find those phrases, rewrite them, and trim the novel down. It’s lazy writing, but I appreciate that during the drafting stages, repetition doesn’t matter as editing provides the chance to weed out superfluous words and phrases.

Another benefit from reading as a writer is coming across words I’m not familiar with. I always quickly jot them down in my notebook, check their meaning, and try them in my own work to see if they fit. Broadening vocabulary as well as my reading material is another way of learning from other works and improving my writing skills.

One obvious disadvantage is not switching off from writer mode, which can detract from the enjoyment of reading. It’s so easy to be in the middle of reading something, and thinking, “I wouldn’t have written it like that,” so it’s important to try and separate the two. Reading for pleasure should not be relegated to second place.

Writing

10 Years Later…

Horizon Skies is 10 years old!

It has indeed, been a decade since I put pen to paper, and started on the story that eventually became Horizon Skies. 10 years during which I not only went through a lot of life changes, but my novel also metamorphosed from a messy, directionless fantasy into a manuscript that hopefully, resembles something a bit more polished.

In those years, other than writing, I moved house three times, changed jobs five times including relocating out of London, worked full time, and battled with depression and anxiety.

  • 2012 – Drafting on Red Sky Dawn begins.
  • 2017 – First draft finished!
    • A year spent on edits and revisions.
    • Title change to Horizon Skies.
  • 2018 – First round of querying literary agents.
    • My first experience of rejection.
  • 2018 – Worked with Lucy Rose York (editor) on improving manuscript.
  • 2019 – Procrastination, editing, revising, and more work with Lucy.
  • 2020 – Sporadic work on Horizon Skies.
  • 2021 – A very tough year, copy edit on opening chapters done.
  • 2022 – Fresh beta read, deep dive editing and revising.
  • 2022 – Back out to literary agents!

I’ve been at the point of no return with Horizon Skies several times, hence why it’s taken five years to get from the first draft to what is now the 6th or 7th. The overall story has remained the same, but there have been chapters and paragraphs cut, new chapters added, and the word count has fluctuated from its original 93k to 108k to 103k. All that’s left to do is create my query formats so they’re tailored to agent requirements.

What I have learnt from this process is invaluable though, and has certainly encouraged me to approach the next project with a different plan of action. I have lots of other ideas, more stories I want to tell, but in realising my ambition, I’ve had to learn not just how to write a novel, but what it means to be a writer.

As much as I want to work on other stuff, I have to prioritise Horizon Skies 2 (title undecided). I did work out a rough plan a few years ago, but as I’ve improved, new story arcs and back stories emerged. When I first started the process, I didn’t know what HS was about (the true mark of a pantser!).

So, my new plan is:

  • Review story plan for HS part 2.
  • Plan the story arc.
  • Character backstories.
    • Dynamics.
    • Relationships.
    • Tragedy.
    • Legends.
  • World building.
    • Book 2 has a whole new world to explore!
  • Structure.

I’m at the end of my first year with the Open University and my final assignment has been submitted. The second year starts in October, and I intend to use the four months between to work on book two, as book one will be sitting with agents, and querying can take months. With everything I’ve learnt, I have made a promise to myself to not take another 10 years!

The biggest lesson I’ve learnt is that writing a book is actually easy, it’s the stuff afterwards that’s hard. My editing was crap to begin with, I barely cut 500 words. Fast forward a few years, and I’ve cut whole chapters, revised parts of the story, identified words and phrases I’m far too fond of, and improved my grammar.

I fell out of love with Horizon Skies for a while, it can be a soul destroying process, performing necessary surgery on something I’ve nurtured from the first word on a blank page. I’ve found my enthusiasm for it again though, and feel genuinely excited to have something to my name.

Writing

Ignorance and Fear

According to Pen America, there are currently more than 1,100 titles banned or facing a ban across the USA.

Let’s be clear on this. Not only is it a reprehensible move by the far right to censor childrens’ and young peoples’ education, but it holds a mirror to their own twisted ideology. The idea that censoring material because it will “corrupt” young minds is a smokescreen for the real purpose: To push an ideological view of America shaped by ultra-conservative views of bigotry, hate, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and Christian zealotry.

What are the most commonly cited reasons for censorship?

  • Race – obviously, racism shouldn’t be encouraged, but a book that shines a light on racism and its wider impact should be considered essential reading. For that reason, I can thoroughly recommend The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.
  • Witchcraft/The Occult – massively misunderstood (Salem With Trials, anyone?) practises with both good and bad elements. Books such as the Harry Potter series are seen as promoting occult practises and attacking religion.
  • Sex – in particular, same-sex relationships, sex before marriage, sexual abuse, anything on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Do these censors honestly believe a book can turn a straight child gay or question their gender? I’ve got news for them, kids already are. I’ve read loads of LGBTQ+ stories, a particular favourite is The House In The Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune. It’s absolutely beautiful.
  • Sociopolitical – challenging the political system, encouraging rebellion, anti-capitalist, drug use, violence, poverty, profanity. If a book makes you think about the unfairness of the current system, question the divide between rich and poor, spotlights the destructive consequences of drug use, then those are good things.

I have a question for those in favour of censorship: What on Earth is it that you are so scared of?

Because this is what it boils down to – fear.

To quote Yoda – Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.

I would go one further, and add that ignorance feeds the fear to begin with. By not educating themselves on issues that many of these books address, the censors are perpetuating this myth that kids will become corrupt, that they’ll turn gay, trans, take drugs, paint pentagrams on the floor, etc.

If that was the case, I and many others have been doomed for a long time. Next year, I turn 50, and I have read horror, fantasy fiction, sci-fi, classics, chick lit, LGBTQ+, thrillers, dystopia and general fiction. Books are my most favourite thing in the world, I love them, I love reading. I love diving into stories, and going on amazing adventures. Books have fed and continue to feed my imagination. They have saved me during dark times, comforted me, made me cry, made me laugh, kept me on the edge of my seat, or up until the small hours.

My advice to anyone reading this, concerned about the book ban is to defy it. Read those banned books, let your kids read them, let them make up their own minds. Kids are not stupid, and they deserve better than to have a bunch of narrow minded adults censoring their education. THAT is what will corrupt them. Not books.

Writing

Dream. Believe. Achieve.

Well, after months of procrastination, and thinking to myself “I can’t do this anymore!” I have finally made the decision to get back into querying with literary agents.

Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment, having been rejected on my first attempt, but giving up at the first hurdle is hardly the key to success.

So I reminded myself of the famous authors over the years who were rejected numerous times:

  • Agatha Christie
  • JK Rowling
  • Stephen King

There are plenty more, of course, but these three are a great example of rejected authors who persevered, never gave up, and achieved their dream. There’s a level of resilience required, and I am nothing, if not resilient.

I spent a weekend working on the changes necessary for the opening chapters to Horizon Skies, and when a colleague offered to beta read for me, I realised it was a good opportunity to get the new version in front of a fresh pair of eyes. It gave me a break from thinking about it, and I was able to spend time researching literary agents.

Literary agents work in a fast paced, ever changing publishing climate, but I believe this is a good time to try again. The reason being is that even though there is a huge amount of YA Fantasy out there, what I’m seeing in social media is a lot of fairytale retellings gaining popularity, and fey based stories. Mine isn’t a retelling, the characters are human, and it’s very much a character driven story. My hope is to expand upon the world I’ve created in the second instalment, and bring more mythical elements in, and to create a challenging world that my characters are not prepared for or expecting.

The weekend just gone, I spent time on putting together a query spreadsheet of twenty agents currently open to submissions in the UK. Choosing an agent to approach can be difficult, for example, one agency has two agents both representing Fiction and Children’s. Both have similar bios, so who to choose? Well, the best way is to look at their client lists. If there are names I recognise who write in my chosen genre then that’s the agent I pick. Agents will also pass manuscripts along to a colleague if they feel someone else would be a better fit.

I also check out the acknowledgments at the back of my favourite books. The agent always gets a mention. If the writer isn’t UK based, I check to see if they have a UK agent. Otherwise, I disregard as overseas markets are another minefield altogether, and agents usually have a team that deal with overseas deals (if you’re lucky enough to get that far!)

Once the beta read is back, I’ve then got the unenviable task of reviewing the previous synopses, cover letters, and putting together the chapter requirements for each agent. It’s important to remember when querying that there isn’t a one size fits all. Some agents want a brief synopsis and the first three chapters, another will want a page synopsis and the first fifty-thousand words.

Every query has to be tailored to the agent in question, a scatter bomb approach will only show that the agency hasn’t been researched properly, and this will make a terrible first impression, and likely result in an immediate rejection.

Life

Thank ****, 2021 is Finally Over.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it, the past year has been a total and utter shit show. On a personal level, 2021 started off with a mental breakdown, resulting in almost two months off work. Pete’s dad passed away in March after a long battle with blood cancer that went full blown leukaemia. In April, my cat needed emergency vet treatment, and Pete was struggling with burnout. In June I was struggling with high stress levels, ending up in hospital with gastritis. In July, we both contracted COVID, my case was quite mild so I was able to still look after Pete who was laid up for almost a month. We’re both coping now with the long term fatigue that COVID leaves behind. Ok one minute, the next – utterly exhausted. Simple things such as changing the bed linen can wipe me out.

It seemed like a crazy notion when, in July, I applied for a new role at work. It was a step up, more money, more responsibility, but working internally instead of with external clients. I’d been recommended for the role, and took the plunge. Pete was worried I’d be taking on more stress, but I had to at least try, otherwise I’d never know. Thankfully, the new role is working out amazing, less stress, more time to manage workload, a great boss, and a fantastic team.

It was the same with my OU degree course. I felt like I’d missed out on the opportunity when I was younger, and really wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. I scored 75% on my very first assignment, which I’m really happy with. The course isn’t easy, and it really forces me to stretch my thinking, but I’m so thankful for all that I’ve learned so far.

So, the last couple of months had more positive things happening, but we were both so jaded that by the time it came to preparing for Christmas, it was a real struggle. Christmas spirit was definitely lacking, decorations didn’t go up until about a week before, present buying was uninspired (thank goodness for Not On The High Street!), even Christmas cards were sent out as an afterthought. We had an ok day on the 25th, made a nice dinner, had a few drinks, and opened our presents.

New Year has also been a total non-event. I haven’t celebrated NYE in years, it’s too much hassle. Bouncers on pub doors, entry fees to get in, nowhere to sit, tripled prices. Ugh. This year, we watched Cobra Kai on Netflix, looked at our phones when they hit midnight, said “thank fuck for that”, and went to bed.

I’ve said in previous years that I’m not really one to make resolutions as most people never keep them. Instead, I am going to make the effort to get myself back on track physically, mentally and spiritually. Next year, I hit the big 50, and by that time I want to be in much better place.

I realise this is all a bit doom and gloom, and it’s important to find the positives in a negative situation, but when you’re hit with ever higher mountains to climb, it all gets a bit tiring. However, I am nothing if not resilient, I have been burned to ash, and still I rise.

Writing

Light at the End of the Tunnel?

As I’ve discovered this year, the ups and downs of life are unpredictable. 2021 has been tough, a much harder and challenging year for me than 2020. From my mental breakdown in January, losing my partner’s father in March, to contracting COVID in summer, ending up in hospital with gastritis, and working under increased stress and pressure in the day job, I am amazed that no one’s found me rocking in a corner, a glazed expression on my face!

One thing I have learned from all this is to stop feeling guilty about not meeting my writing deadlines and goals. My writing has been terribly neglected this year, but it’s not what pays the bills, or keeps a roof over my head. It’s an ambition I am trying to fulfill, and has had to take a back seat every so often. When I achieve the luxury of calling writing my day job, it will take absolute priority, but until then I will get to it as and when I can.

That being said, I think about it ALL THE TIME!

My editor is getting back to me in the next few days with notes and edits on my revised opening chapters for Horizon Skies. I don’t know what to expect, but she knows her stuff, and I trust her judgment. If further changes are required, this is something I will have to give careful consideration to.

Sanctuary of Stone needs a rewrite. It’s not an overtly complex story, but it’s directionless. I know what the story is about, how it starts, and how it ends. There’s good stuff in what I’ve written so far, but I’ve come to the conclusion that this is one story I really should have planned out properly.

Daughter of Tomorrow just needs to be picked up again. I love what I’ve written so far, I know exactly where the story is going, and I know how it ends. I do need to do some research into the medical and scientific aspect, but this element won’t be required until the last few chapters. In terms of researching pandemics, well, living through one already provides a glimpse into how society reacts and behaves. From idiots fighting over toilet rolls to the conspiracy, anti-vax nut jobs who’d rather believe what a ten minute Google search tells them, instead of following the advice of ACTUAL scientists, doctors and nurses working in the field.

My studies. In an earlier post, I was excited to start on a Creative Writing course through Open Study College. Ok, I started it, but I lost interest. Without the interaction of working with a tutor, or bouncing ideas around with other students, I was unable to keep up the momentum. I can always go back to it, as I have the study materials, but ultimately, it isn’t the course for me.

Instead, I signed up to do an English Literature and Creative Writing degree with the Open University! Six years part time, and actual classes and forums (online) I can attend with lecturers and other students. So far, I absolutely love it. I’ve submitted my first assignment, taken part in a couple of forums and a day school. As the course is designed to be interactive, I feel more encouraged, plus the fact that I can potentially finish with a BA Hons to my name.

On the job front, an opportunity came up to move to a completely different role. I was reluctant to apply at first as I didn’t want to lose working with certain people, but in the end, I decided to go for it with a “If I get it, great; if I don’t, that’s fine too,” mentality. I submitted my application on the final day after chatting with a few people about it, and it turns out my name had come up as a recommendation. I was successful, and started my new role on the 1st November, and I can already tell it was the right thing to do.

With these changes, I also need to focus on my physical health, which I’ve also been neglectful of. I’ve put on more weight, have back and shoulder issues connected to stress, and don’t feel great. Waking up with aches and pains, not being able to fit comfortably into my clothes (I REFUSE to go a size up!), feeling ugly, and hating myself for letting things get this bad, it’s time I start looking after myself better. Obviously, post-COVID fatigue hasn’t helped, and I need to factor that in, but it’s also not an excuse.

Hopefully, these positive changes are a sign of things to come, but I remain cautiously optimistic…

Books, Writing

To Beta, or Not To Beta?

Beta reading is your opportunity to provide feedback to another author. Some will have teams of betas, others will work with just a very select few. How beta reading is approached is a very personal choice; there is no right or wrong way, it’s what the writer is comfortable with.

I have beta read on two occasions (same book, later version was heavily revised), and really enjoyed the experience. Not only did I get to read something very few people had set eyes on, but I also got to enjoy it in its original incarnation. I am now beta reading another manuscript, and expecting one more to come my way soon.

SO, WHAT IS A BETA READER?

  1. Someone who will read your unsolicited manuscript.
  2. Provide feedback and critique.

WHY DO I NEED ONE?

Betas can help writers see the woods for the trees. As a writer, you’ve spent months, maybe even years on your opus magnum, it’s precious to you; this makes it harder to see the flaws. You love the story, and that’s what counts. Right?

Wrong. It’s for this reason that a beta will provide an invaluable service.

  1. Overall feedback on the story.
  2. Critique on plot, tone, pacing, characterisation, and dialogue.
  3. Spot plot holes.
  4. What they liked/didn’t like.

Ideally, your beta should be a fellow writer or bookworm who works and/or reads in the same genre. You might have written a great thriller, but someone whose interest lies in historical romance probably won’t be a good fit.

It’s also a good idea to have a few betas, too many can muddy the waters though, how much critique do you want to sift through? Three is a good number as you are more likely to spot an overall theme in their feedback.

Family and friends aren’t always the best choice, more than likely they won’t want to upset you!

WHAT ABOUT PROFESSIONAL BETAS?

Beta reading isn’t a recognised skill such as editing or proofreading i.e. you can’t get a qualification in beta reading. Your best source for betas is the wonderful writing community of which you are already a member! Social media is a fantastic place to find people more than willing to read your manuscript. If you have a Twitter or Instagram account geared towards your writing endeavours, you will find betas amongst your connections. Facebook and Good Reads have critique and beta groups.

Of course, you do have to consider the implications of copyright and trusting someone with your work, so don’t just e-mail off your manuscript to someone you’ve only had one or two interactions with. Do your research, ask other writers if they can recommend someone.

This article has some very useful information on writing copyright.

WHAT SHOULD I ASK FOR?

This is entirely down to you, here are some examples (not exhaustive):

  1. What was your overall impression?
  2. Favourite character and why.
  3. Least favourite character and why.
  4. Were there any parts that bored you? Please elaborate your answer.
  5. Any particular prose or phrases that stood out as well written?
  6. Were there any scenes that seemed unnecessary?
  7. Were there any sections where the pacing suffered?

Again, this is where you, the writer, decide what you want to get out of the beta read. Tailor the questions to suit the genre, if there is romance involved, or violence, for example. Do they illicit the reactions you want?

Remember, betas are not for proofreading or line editing, services which do work on a hire basis. They are not there to pick up on grammar and punctuation, writers should already have a pretty good grip on these, and they will be fine tuned during final edits.

I hope this post has proven informative, if you would like to comment, please do. Additional tips are always welcome!

Writing

Nine Years of Writing, Faffing, and Editing…

Back in 2017, I wrote those immortal words, “The End”. I had done it, I had written a book. An ACTUAL novel! The sense of achievement was amazing.

Horizon Skies has had many iterations over the years, but in 2012, I sat myself down, notebook and pen in hand, and I began to write. I knew the story, it had been playing out in my mind like a movie for years, it was desperate to be told.

After finishing it, I took a break, then went through the painful editing process. It was at this time, that I wasn’t ruthless enough. I loved the story, and didn’t feel it needed changing. I tweaked and tidied, made it look presentable, and then sent to to my betas.

Feedback was generally positive, no real changes were suggested, there were a few questions, and my magic system and world building stood out as elements that weren’t fully explored. Two areas of the book that, to be honest, I hadn’t dedicated much time to.

I pressed on, however and in 2018 queried with agents. Of course, I was roundly rejected, which I was prepared for, and I expected it to happen. How many first time writers are lucky enough to snag an agent straight away? I was encouraged by some of the positive rejections I received though, this at least meant I was on the right track.

I hired a professional editor, Lucy Rose York, (I highly recommend) and found her advice and feedback invaluable. She went through my manuscript in detail, gave me really concise editorial notes, and I realised I’d been too precious about Horizon Skies. Whilst the book didn’t need a complete overhaul, she pointed out areas for improvement, parts that could be moved to earlier stages in the story, and again reminded me to elaborate further on my magic system.

Who knew magic systems could be so difficult?!

For two years, I faffed about with Horizon Skies, picking it up, and thinking “I can’t do this again.” The thought of having to edit further was so disheartening.

I did though, during lockdown in 2020, I started working on it again. I made some major cuts, and fleshed out a character arc.

These changes weren’t enough though. I went back through the annotated manuscript Lucy had sent me, and worked through all her suggested edits. Some I didn’t agree with, but for the most part I did what was suggested. It was hard work, minor changes could take up hours, but when reading back the amendments, I could immediately see how they improved the story.

Yesterday, I finished writing my final interlude piece. I’ve been inspired by Brandon Sanderson to slot in some small chapters to provide a bit of background, make the world building a bit more interesting, and elaborate on the magic system. It’s still a rough draft, but I’ll tweak it up when I transcribe it into my Word document.

After that, I’ll do a grammar edit and proofread. Whether or not I get it beta read again, or go back to Lucy remains to be seen. I don’t feel I can do anymore with the story. How much editing, revision, and rewriting is someone supposed to do? I could tweak forever. I just want to get it back out to the agents, and see if this time, I can make a success of it.

Writing

The Writer’s Dream.

What do you dream of achieving as a writer? Will it be enough to simply have your work out there, being read by a handful of book lovers, or are you dreaming of the big time? Movie deals, perhaps a Netflix adaptation? Maybe you’d love to see your hard work immortalised with a special edition hard back boxset? How about a queue round the block for a fully booked signing session?

Whilst it’s important that us writers keep our feet on the ground whilst our heads are in the clouds, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having those dreams. It’s happened for plenty of authors in the past, why not you?

My dream is to be able to work full time as writer. I don’t think that’s too much to ask for. I must admit to having romanticised the notion in the past. When I first queried agents, I imagined I’d receive a slew of manuscript requests, and there’d be a bidding war for me. Ha! The reality was very different, instead I was rejected (some were positive though) and had to face up to the reality that I wasn’t going to be “The Next Big Thing”.

Here I am, a few years after querying, but having learned so much more. When I read through Horizon Skies now, I spot constant areas for improvement. The early chapters still show my immaturity as a writer, and I even cringe at some of the dialogue! This proves to me that I have improved my craft, I can write, I’m actually pretty good, so why not dream big?

Dreams are so important, they give us something to strive for. If we don’t dream, how can we ever explore the possibility of being able to achieve that dream?

Whatever form your writing dream takes (or maybe you’re not a writer, maybe you’re a poet, or a dancer, or studying) believe in yourself that you can do it. Practice every day, indulge your passion for what led you in that direction, connect with like minded individuals who are in the same field. It’s amazing how bouncing off others can give you motivation, encouragement and a sense of belonging. Above all, remember this sage advice from the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett