Discovering gold - a critique writing partner and how to find one

I enjoy a ‘writerly’ Skype with another novel writer, Denise Barnes – my critique Writing Partner (CWP). We swap hints and tips, recommend and exchange books, encourage each other about courses and competitions. But the best thing is that we read each other’s work and critique it. Now you have to get on well to do this, so well that you can say things that may seem harsh. But we have to be completely, and sometimes brutally, honest. It’s a pointless exercise otherwise. With both of us going through the same process, we can empathise as well as criticise.

Her current novels are heartwarming Second World War stories with romantic themes, mine are alternative history thrillers. While our imagined worlds are ridiculously different, we drill down and become thoroughly enmeshed in each other’s characters and worlds. It’s spooky when she turns round to me and says about a piece of my heroine’s dialogue,’You know, Carina wouldn’t say it like that.’

Luckily, we both have outgoing  personalities and having both owned businesses in a tough commercial environment, we have had to make difficult decisions and say things that were not always welcome. We’re quite nice really!

We have different strengths; mine is history, plotting and action (quelle surprise!), hers is the emotional side of life. But we are both grammar Nazis and she’s particularly good on flowing writing. We do disagree on commas, though… 😉

It’s a bit like any serious relationship: you go on a few (book) dates, get to know them find shared values, then take a leap as you move in with them (a.k.a. hand your whole manuscript over to them). Then you settle into an almost telepathic partnership and get to know every last secret about your partner’s writing…

Like any relationship, it takes honesty, nurturing and above all listening. Trust is key: you are handing over your ‘baby’ for another to look at, assess and critique. But hopefully that person will stand as a godparent/patron/responsible adult and help the infant mature into a full-grown adult.

We’ve been doing this for ten years now and both have nearly that number of books under our respective belts, let alone countless posts, short stories and articles.

I expect to be still going  on like this for the next ten.

 

So how do you find this writing soulmate, ally, confidante and critic?

  • Join a local writing group – large or small – and get a feel of the different writers, their personalities, experience and goals
  • Join larger writing societies and associations such as the Romantic Novelists’ Association, the Alliance of independent Authors (ALLi) and the Historical Novel Society and talk to people at their parties and conferences.
  • Go on writing courses to improve your craft. You’ll meet other like-minded people serious about achieving their goals because they’ve laid out money for such tuition.
  • Be open – Both of us were small business owners with no (apparent) literary pretensions, but both secretly bursting to be novel writers

You might have found a person who would be a good fit. Check the following:

  • The two of you must be on the same wavelength for goals and have personalities which gel. The personality and character of the other is as important as her critique writing skills. As the relationship develops between the two of you, you will both find your rhythm, your style, your way of maintaining a close and comfortable relationship. The person who you think might be the right one could be a great match for another writer but in the end not suit you.
  • It’s fine – often better – if the other person writes in a different genre from you as you will have fresh eyes for your partner’s work and they will for yours. If you both write, for instance, cosy crime, you might find it becomes rather competitive and you will always think your partner’s work is superior to your own. And she will think the same about yours!
  • If they live a long way away, don’t rule them out. You can always Skype each week and arrange to meet occasionally in person.
  • Know what you want/expect from your CWP. Is it help on plotting, characterisation, emotion, cliff hangers, layout, social media promotion, structure, early proof-reading for grammar, punctuation, typos etc., a sounding board, or cheer leader? You’ll find you both have various strengths and weaknesses just as in a business partnership

Vital dos and don’ts

  • Do schedule in longer pieces of work such as a novella or a novel; agree together when you’ll be sending it to her and approximately when you’d like it returned. Keep to agreed deadlines.
  • Never resent the time you spend critiquing each other’s work. It will highlight possible weaknesses and potential improvements in your own work.
  • Remember it’s your work in the end. If you don’t agree with something your CWP suggests, then don’t do it. But before completely disregarding it, think about it.
  • Be prepared to disagree. It’s part of the very nature of the relationship
  • Never say the other’s work is good if, in your opinion, it’s not, but you’re afraid to hurt her feelings. Being kind won’t help her to be a success.
  • Contact the other regularly even when you have nothing for her to critique, especially if you feel depressed with yet another rejection. She can remind you of past successes, even if it’s a short story that was long-listed, give you a kick up the bum if you haven’t been producing any writing lately, and say just one thing to get your creative juices going again.
  • Resolve any disputes fast. Be honest, but accept that you might be wrong.
  • Celebrate together and have fun!

Trust is the most important element of all. You have to trust that they’re good at writing, that they are serious about their writing, and most of all that they ‘get’ your work and critique it with what we call ‘Brutal Love’. This does not mean criticise them personally or diminish the other.

Good CWPs genuinely want the best for you. They want you to grow, to improve, to have successes. They are happy for you when you reach various milestones, and sympathise when you’ve had rejections, when you think you’ll never make it as a proper writer they will gee you up, cheer you on, and make you feel ready to face it all again.

Being recognised from your writing by the public is one of the most difficult things to achieve, but when it happens it’s so exciting. And your CWP will enjoy being part of your success – as you will hers!

Happy writing!

 

A bit about Denise

Denise Barnes has written and had published two memoirs, but was desperate to write a novel. So in 2005 she sold her business and began what was to become the award-winning historical trilogy: The Voyagers. She is now writing a second historical series for HarperCollins. The first one, An Orphan in the Snow, published Nov 2017, shot into The Bookseller’s top twenty chart. It’s nearly a decade ago when Denise tentatively put her first horribly-rough manuscript into Alison’s hands, but happily admits she wouldn’t be where she is today without “the best CWP ever.”
www.denisebarneswriter.com  Twitter: @denisebarnesuk

 

Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. NEXUS, an Aurelia Mitela novella, is now out.

Download ‘Welcome to Roma Nova’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

A writer's progress, or 'Do not despair'

2012 PR shot

It’s ten years since I started thrusting books on the world and I’d like to I share some expurgated diary extracts and experiences with you.

But first, a word of motivation…
You know how they say it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something? If you take a working day of 8 hours, that comes out to 1,250 days. Suppose we work 5 days a week, i.e. a 40 hour week (Haha!) that comes to around 250 weeks or 4.8 years.

A wise entrepreneur once told me it takes about 5 years to get a business off the ground and into profit. So theoretically, I should have got hold of this writing business. I couldn’t possibly comment…

It’s actually quite hard to get ideas out of your head into an arrangement of words on a page that you feel satisfied with. But be comforted – perfection is impossible. That’s almost the first helpful lesson you learn. Some readers will rave about your writing, others will be left cold. But as a writer you feel compelled to keep trying, however tired your fingers are or how ever much your back aches, however many times you feel discouraged by others’ success or your own lack of it. But if you do the very best you possibly can, then give yourself a gold star. Being bloody-minded and persistent also helps…

So how did it all go for me…

August 2009: A really bad film sends me to my desk, and within 90 days, I have churned out a story of 90,000 words. No clue what to do with the finished manuscript, but it’s bound to be snapped up and sold in every shop and airport.

2010-12: A humbling apprenticeship. I discover I know nothing about the book world or novel writing craft despite being a life-long avid reader. Although ‘high concept and well-written’ according to professional assessors, my story is covered in layers of wishy-washyness and meanders all over the place – certainly not ready for agents, publishers or unprotected readers. I start a blog, though (https://alison-morton.com), as I knew from my business days that you need your own wholly-owned presence in cyberspace.

Nicola Morgan, Alison Morton, Liz Harris sharing a good joke in 2010

I join a writers’ circle, acquire a critique writing partner, go to conferences, read craft books, study on courses and in classes, and hone.

And I mean hone. You have never seen such scalpel action on a writer’s work. I put it through professional assessments – tough and even tougher. At last, a reasonably manuscript emerges.

My desk isn’t visible through the layers of multiple rejection letters saying, ‘intelligent and well-crafted, but we don’t know how to market it’. I despair. But feedback from many quarters said the story was of publishable standard so I take heart.

During this ‘apprenticeship’, I make connections including the late Carole Blake, the agents’ agent, who becomes a friend and mentor. We discover we both have a lot of opinions on everything. 😉 I come across publishing experts of all stripes in person and virtually including Sam Missingham. My business brain clicks into action and after consideration I decide to research the self-publishing sector. My brain hurts but I draw up a short list of experts to help bring my novels to market in the best possible presentation and grill them for two hours each.

2013: Structurally and copy-edited, proofed and put together beautifully by SilverWood Books, INCEPTIO hits the world. PERFIDITAS follows six months later (It’s fully drafted by the time INCEPTIO came out, so I’m not being super-productive!). Am taken aback by the amount of PR/marketing needed: blog tours, reviews, guest posts, competitions, talks, local radio, let alone feeding my own blog. (Aaaaargh!)
Join the Alliance of Independent Authors – lifeboat.

2014: SUCCESSIO comes out in June and I’m interviewed by no less a person than broadcaster Sue Cook!

I start to get onto the speaking ladder at conferences – panels and talks – very exciting!

Publishing collaboration panel at the Romantic Novelists’ Association 2016 conference with Dominic Wakeford (Piatkus), Carol Blake (Blake Friedmann Lit Agency), Katie Fforde, Nicola Cornick (Vice Chair RNA), Donna Hillyer (publishing consultant)

But I realise my writing life has to change. It’s the fine choice indies have to make – writing or marketing? The answer is both.  Planning is key whether it’s speaking, attending, selling your books, requesting reviews, running your social media, writing guest posts, packing your exhibition box or considering next year’s events.

And you learn to write on planes and trains.

2015: AURELIA comes out, the first of a new trilogy set the late 1960s. Originally, it was going to be a single sequel, but I have too much story, so another trilogy. That will be it. Or so I think. I go to the US and chair the indie panel at the Historical Novel Society conference. This is also the year for a marketing makeover for the blog. I split it as I was aiming at two audiences – my Roma Nova readers and other writers. Now I have a writing blog as well as the Roma Nova book one (https://alisonmortonauthor.com). (What am I doing???)

2016: The year the Ryanair crew recognise me when I came back home to France from my tenth gig in the UK.  I’m doing too much, including a major conference in France as well as several in the UK. Still, I’d chair the indie panel at the 2016 HNS Conference, launch my fifth book, INSURRECTIO (endorsed by Conn Iggulden!) at the London Book Fair (left) and speak at an event with Kate Mosse!

2017: RETALIO comes out in April followed by CARINA, a novella, in November. I only achieve this by gluing myself into my chair and doing fewer events, although I had the pleasure of speaking in Dublin for the first time.

2018: Persuaded by the dynamic force known as Helen Hollick, I move several light years from my comfort zone and write a short story for 1066 Turned Upside Down alternative history collection. No problem with the alternative history side; this is the genre I write in – I give talks in it – but a short story? Um…  I write 90-100,000 word books. But somehow it works.

This impels me to publish a short story collection of my own – ROMA NOVA EXTRA. Oh, and I represent the indie writing world on a panel at CrimeFest.

2019: The great change in Roma Nova: reorganisation and brand new covers! Each heroine now has four books – three novels and a novella to their name – and the series will split into the Carina and Aurelia strands.  I published NEXUS in September, the novella that completes the Aurelia strand. In my spare time, I write a short story for RUBICON, a collection of Roman stories published for the Historical Writers’ Association, and a 17th century Roma Novan story will be out in December as part of Helen Hollick’s Story Song month.

Ten years later, I’d say the writing process itself doesn’t get a great deal easier but some aspects of writing life do. You’ve gained expertise, knowledge and valuable contacts. You have a better idea of what you’re supposed to be doing, and have (hopefully) gained a sense of proportion. And you’ve learnt that change is the only certain thing.

So, nine Roma Nova books, one history book, a new writer’s guide later, I’m not super-productive by some standards, but I still feel that urge to write, to put those words out there. Where next? I’m developing a new series – a first draft completed and the second started… Yes, the itch is still with me.

 

Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. NEXUS, an Aurelia Mitela novella, is now out.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines… Download ‘Welcome to Roma Nova’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

Tony Riches, historic fiction writer of power and dynasties

No, not Julio-Claudians or other Romans, but that powerful and intermarried ruling family, the Tudors and their connections.

This Thursday’s guest is Tony Riches, a full-time UK author of best-selling historical fiction. He lives in Pembrokeshire, West Wales and is a specialist in the history of the Wars of the Roses and the lives of the early Tudors.

Tony’s other published historical fiction novels include: Owen – Book One Of The Tudor Trilogy, Jasper – Book Two Of The Tudor Trilogy, Henry – Book Three Of The Tudor Trilogy, Mary – Tudor Princess and Brandon – Tudor Knight.

Tony’s latest book, Katherine, Tudor Duchess is out this week. Sometimes the side actors can be more intruiguing than the main characters. Over to Tony…

Attractive, wealthy and influential, Katherine Willoughby is one of the most unusual ladies of the Tudor court. A favourite of King Henry VIII, Katherine knows all his six wives, his daughters Mary and Elizabeth, and his son Edward.

When her father dies, Katherine becomes the ward of Tudor knight, Sir Charles Brandon. Her Spanish mother, Maria de Salinas, is Queen Catherine of Aragon’s lady in waiting, so it is a challenging time for them when King Henry marries the enigmatic Anne Boleyn.Following Anne’s dramatic downfall, Katherine marries Charles Brandon, and becomes Duchess of Suffolk at the age of fourteen. After the short reign of young Catherine Howard, and the death of Jane Seymour, Katherine and Brandon are chosen to welcome Anna of Cleves as she arrives in England.

When the royal marriage is annulled, Katherine’s good friend, Catherine Parr becomes the king’s sixth wife, and they work to promote religious reform. Katherine’s young sons are tutored with the future king, Prince Edward, and become his friends, but when Edward dies his Catholic sister Mary is crowned queen. Katherine’s Protestant faith puts her family in great danger – from which there seems no escape.

Katherine’s remarkable true story continues the epic tale of the rise of the Tudors, which began with the best-selling Tudor trilogy and concludes with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

——
Available in eBook and paperback from Amazon UK and Amazon US
(Audiobook in 2020)
——

Connect with Tony
Website:  tonyriches.com
Blog, The Writing Desk
Facebook
Twitter: @tonyriches

 

Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. NEXUS, an Aurelia Mitela novella, is now out.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines… Download ‘Welcome to Roma Nova’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

Looking at the world through a clearer lens...

Eyedrops – my life for the next six weeks

I woke up yesterday morning and could see.

No, not a divine miracle, but a result of expert surgery and it’s only one eye so far. The other one will be sorted out in a fortnight’s time. (Update 10 October: Second eye done and all is fabulous.)

I’ve lived in a blurry world of deep myopia since I was seven; sometimes assisted by glasses, other times by contact lenses, but always worried about losing one or the other and dropping back into that blurry world. Short sight has been part of me over many decades. I’m vain enough to whip off my glasses for photos, especially for that vital author mug shot, but otherwise my 180 degree vision has mostly been only partly usable.

Now it’s all going to change and so will part of my identity. It’ll be strange not scrabbling almost instinctively for my glasses first thing in the morning. Practically, I will join the rest of my cohort and need reading glasses for close work as I requested long sight over medium range for my new implanted lenses. I live in rural France and here you can’t survive without some form of personal transport, i.e. a car. But I will regain my confidence to  drive at night again. Actually, I’ve hardly driven for a few weeks now because of the evil cataract that’s been growing in my defenceless left eye.

Currently, I’m typing this one-eyed and wearing my husband’s spare reading glasses, but I will be getting my own after the second eye operation. I can then do that ‘looking over the top of my reading glasses’ thing that I make the older Aurelia do in my Roma Nova books when she wants to remonstrate with somebody. I’m looking forward to the dramatic gesture of sweeping my reading glasses off with a sigh and staring coldly/pityingly/compassionately at some unfortunate.

The first one that says ‘Arrrh’ gets it!

It’s been a year of operations for me: skin cancer last December, realignment of foot bones in March and these two eye operations. The French health service has been superlative and the follow-up and ancillary care unrivalled. We live in a medical desert when it comes to specialists – this is the downside of rural France – but are lucky to have a good local health centre with GPs and nurse practitioners. However, good hospitals are an easy hour’s travel away so it works out in the end.

A bonus has been the fascinating conversations in the anaesthetists’ bay, operating theatres and the post-op recovery rooms about vocabulary, holidays in England, chatting in German with an anaesthetist from Alsace whose husband was an English teacher, giggling over sounds we find difficult to pronounce in each others’ languages. Oh, and you always get cake afterwards…

But there’s a dark side to my year of operations

Cramming all these procedures into less than ten months was not my favoured plan. The cancer was the urgent one, of course, and had to be done ASAP, but the others could have been sorted out at a more leisurely pace. It was Brexit.

There, I’ve said it. The Withdrawal Agreement (WA) has been fiddling about in the UK parliament for ever and older French resident British citizens didn’t know from one month to another whether their healthcare would still be covered by the EU reciprocal reimbursement system. As I now receive a UK state pension based on national insurance contributions I’ve paid throughout my working life in the UK, my healthcare is delivered by the French system and the cost reimbursed to them by the UK. This system is EU-wide, but would end for British citizens on Brexit. The draft WA made provision for this to continue for existing residents, but it became obvious the agreement wasn’t going anywhere.

Then came the threat of no-deal exit in March 2019 with much anxiety especially among the more elderly pensioners who had lost 20% of their income since 2016 due to the falling pound. Many of us with appropriate knowledge and experience spent hours talking and reassuring them, but couldn’t offer them any hard information. Neither could the embassy here, let alone the UK government.

So on a personal level I planned to get everything at least started by March which would qualify under the continuation scheme. My second eye operation and follow-up will just about be done before 31 October which looks as if it will be a no-deal Brexit. I received a letter yesterday from the UK saying healthcare would be extended for another six months, albeit with a convoluted mechanism. Not very comforting for an elderly acquaintance of ours with a husband suffering from terminal cancer, or for people needing ongoing dialysis or diabetic or hypertension medication.

Luckily, the French government stepped up in February with up to two years’ no-deal post-Brexit cover. But the UK has let its elderly EU27 residents down badly. In France, EU27 residents receive healthcare on the same basis that French citizens do; the social security generally reimburses 65-70%. You need a top-up insurance for the balance unless your income is below the mininum wage or it’s a life and death condition which is paid for by the French state.

For the UK, which pays our social security portion, British pensioners in the EU27 are a cheap date. And it seems we’re being stood up.

 

Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. NEXUS, an Aurelia Mitela novella, is now out.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines… Download ‘Welcome to Roma Nova’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

The on/off thing of book worlds

If I had a euro/dollar/pound for every time a review for one of my books has begun with ‘I don’t normally read this type of book, but…’ or ‘I only read this because a friend said I must read it…‘ and ended with a 5-star super-enthusiastic review, I’d be able to drink champagne every day.

Perhaps the sales info on the retailer pages is giving out the wrong message. Perhaps my covers aren’t conveying the story inside. No, I’m 100% sure it’s not that second one after Jessica Bell’s inspired new images for 2019!

Or perhaps it’s something else entirely…

Every book has its own world whether it’s outer space, inner space, a run-down housing estate, ancient Rome, eighteenth century high seas, a dilapidated Scottish castle or the local supermarket. Some of us even speculate in an alternative timeline. The author builds these worlds in her/his mind then opens the doors to that world and beckons the reader to enter.

But how attractive or repellent is that world to a reader?
I don’t mean whether it’s full of flowers, light and love or a gritty, dangerous and desperate place, but how much curiosity it arouses before the reader even turns the first page. Is its premise likely to stir something in a reader? Is it something they might well have been curious about? Does it resonate ages old mystery or a shared universal theme?

Same old, same old vs. something entirely different, possible scary or disturbing?
We all love comfort books, especially when we’re feeling down, the weather is atrocious or something upsetting in our lives has left us shattered. And comfort can be a Regency romance, a wartime saga or a bloody psychological thriller – everybody’s different. But sometimes we find ourselves reading the same type of book/same setting/same basic story. Quietly, very quietly dissatisfaction murmurs in the background, then grows into boredom.

How often have you heard or read, ‘I knew how it would end within the first twenty pages‘ or ‘Nobody seems to write good books now’? You know the feeling yourself that when you go back to read an old favourite, it isn’t as good as you remember…

Of course, nobody is asking readers to read what they dislike, but it’s worth reading something different, even a galaxy away from your reading comfort zone, to find out whether you might make a new and exciting discovery.

‘I don’t read scifi or funny futuristic stuff.’
Yet Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments are fascinating millions who are entranced by the dystopian world of Gilead at the hard end of speculative fiction. Her world is horrifying, yet so relatable and full of characters we know: vulnerable, determined, embarrassed, afraid, resistant, ideological, anxious, accommodating, surviving. Scifi is always a trip of the imagination, but the best stories explore the human dilemmas, the characters’ reactions to them and to that world, and their consequent actions.

Written to market
If a writer is under contract to write a book in a certain setting, then the publishing house has probably carried out intensive market research or has wide experience of what sells. That book world is set and is often a purely commercial choice. Second World War has been very popular recently; readers of one 1940s book will graduate easily to another. If written on a popular trend, then that book world is well-established but could be viewed as predictable.

Independent thought
But if you write in a niche or outside the standard environments of popular books, be prepared to work harder at projecting the attractiveness of your world. How is it different from the one in the average thriller or romance? Does it go beyond the usual alien/vampire/werewolf story? Is it set in a era not the Tudors nor the Second World War? Is it in a country not usually written about?

Good writing technique – a vivid narrative with a purposeful story, no info-dumping and above all well-formed multi-faceted characters – will carry a book world through to the reader hopefully to the extent they will be so absorbed by it that they will clamour for more.

But the key thing to remember is that just as writers are all different, readers are all different. Some will ‘get’ your world, others will walk away unmoved. We cannot all like all the same things – that would make us a very dull society. As writers, we should write to grab the reader by our scintillating and fascinating book worlds. As readers, we should venture out down new roads, even if there are hidden bends, We might end up somewhere truly wonderful.

Photo by Sara Hammarbäck

 

Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. NEXUS, an Aurelia Mitela novella, is now out.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines… Download ‘Welcome to Roma Nova’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.