Setting is important to my books as they’re seasonal and set in countries other than the UK or in an English village. I keep a picture of Middledip fresh in my imagination or a reader might message me to point out that you turn right of Honeybun Cottage to go to the garage, shop and pub in one book but left in another. (It’s right.) To help me in this I have a map of Middledip and also a spreadsheet so I know when the village hall was closed for repairs and when the pub got a refurb. If you wish, you can see the Middledip map on my website. Just follow the link, click GO! and the map opens up and you can hover over the markers and see who lives where. You can also take a walk around Nelson’s Bar.
If setting and sense of place is important then descriptions are too. Here are a few techniques I like:
typical features. In a village setting I comment on whether cottages are thatched or have roof slates, walls of brick or stone. If it’s a seaside village such as Nelson’s Bar then the sea and cliffs come into it a lot. In Italy it’s cypress trees, sunflowers, olive groves. In Malta the sea again, golden stone buildings, prickly pears and dust.
colour. I try and paint pictures into the imagination of my readers. A starry night sky is fine but silvery stars and black night feels better.
imagery. Simile and metaphor enliven writing and can be a shortcut to sharing my imagination. If I mention a bearlike man I don’t mean he’s furry and walks on all fours. I’m thinking big, shambling, maybe grim. Describing a cruise liner as a floating apartment block can produce the right image without labouring over a long description of cabin beside cabin, deck above deck, balconies and people on them and the whole floating on the sea.
character perspective. I often include my character’s feelings, both physical and emotional, when they view a scene. It makes the description interesting and keeps it in proportion. In Summer on a Sunny Island I set myself the task of having Rosa not like Malta when she first arrives. As I adore Malta, it was a challenge. I had to get under her skin and look at the teeming traffic, the road signs she didn’t understand, the dust that covered the car. She was too hot, a construction site was making too much noise. It took her a while to appreciate the joys of snorkelling in a turquoise sea and admiring the golden architecture.
weaving. I try and weave description in rather than holding up the narrative by indulging in long descriptive passages. Such passages are static. They don’t tell you what’s happening or how someone feels.
senses. Probably one of the things we learn first in writing is to utilise all our senses. If I’m describing my heroine I think the smell of her fabric conditioner, the smoothness of her skin and the sound of her laugh can be as important as the colour of her eyes and hair.
seasons. The sea on a sunny summer’s day compared to the sullen, corrugated waves of the winter ocean. Leafy hedges compared to bare branches. Bouncy white clouds compared to ragged grey. A pair of cut off denim shorts or a thick khaki parka. Sparkly flip-flops or fur-lined boots. Everything changes as the seasons do.
How much description you include depends on what you’re writing and how you write. It’s a personal choice and an editorial choice. Without it, readers have nothing to feed their mind’s eye.
I’m often asked for tips so I thought I’d post a few. In my view, at least as important as improving your writing is improving your understanding of publishing. There’s a lot you can safely leave in the hands of your editor or agent if you have one but an overview of the industry can make your expectations and approach realistic.
You can learn about publishing in similar places to those where you learn about writing:
talks (conferences and literary festivals have gone on-line during the pandemic, which often means they’re free – a bonus). The speaker can be an agent, editor, publicity guru, librarian, cover artist, author, media manager, sales manager, self-publishing specialist, journalist, ghostwriter or dozens of other roles but what they’ll have in common is a knowledge of publishing. Example: The Avon Lockdown Show features not just snippets from authors but advice from Avon editors.
newsletters. I think these are an underrated resource. I take free daily email newsletters from The Bookseller and Publishers’ Weekly. There are paid options too but even these free newsletters will give you insight into what’s selling, who’s buying, and, importantly, who’s moving. Why ‘who’s moving’? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read about this agent or editor going into a new role and looking to acquire. ‘Looking to acquire’ means ‘taking on new authors’ if they’re an agent and ‘buying books’ if they’re an editor. It might tell you what is being looked for such as ‘authors from diverse backgrounds’ or ‘feel-good fiction’ or ‘psychological thrillers’. From there, it’s not too hard to find the person online and discover how they accept submissions. NB If you’re taking the free newsletter, read the headlines first to decide which articles are of interest because you can usually only read a couple of articles in full per day. Look out also for writing newsletters from your regional authority. You can often find these as a result of searching your local authority website under ‘arts development officer’ or similar. Example: Writing East Midlands offers a digital newsletter. Sign up by emailing email@example.com.
websites. Writing East Midlands is just one of many resources. Your search engine is your friend though, personally, I’d avoid all the entries with ‘Ad’ attached to them. Publishers’ and agents’ websites and blogs are full of information and so are those of writing communities and arts councils. The personal blogs of authors and other industry professionals can be useful too. NB Look for recent content. Publishing changes quickly but websites hang around for ages. NB2 Be aware of market boundaries. Something you read on a US site may not apply to the UK.
writing magazines. I’ve worked for both Writers’ Forum and Writing Magazine in the UK and they’re both great for market news such as magazines accepting submissions and whether they pay. I don’t think there’s any substitute for keeping up-to-date with a market you might wish to submit to. There are also books that are guides on getting published. I would suggest you buy the most recent you can.
social media. Follow agents and editors! They give hints of what they’re looking for and you can often see what area they work in from the authors they already work with. Join writing communities. I’m part of an authors’ Facebook group where people share their experiences and I often hear news there first. By browsing around social media you’ll find a group to suit you.
These are just my favourites but maybe there’s something here that will work for you.
Earlier this year my writing buddy Mark West, who writes chillers and thrillers, invited me onto his blog, Strange Tales, to talk about a crossroads I once hit in my writing career and what I did about it. It got so much attention that I then wrote a ‘what happened next’ part two.
With Mark’s permission, I’m reproducing the posts here, making them into one and updating where necessary.
In Summer on a Sunny Island, to be published summer 2020, several of the characters stand at crossroads in their lives. From a writing point of view it provides conflict and personal goals, both of which drive the narrative. One afternoon, Rosa and Zach sit up on the roof terrace and try to coach each other into deciding what it is they want next in their lives. It’s not a spectacularly successful coaching session because although they agree they should be looking forward they look back. They wonder whether they should change and, if so, how?
A few years ago I felt at a crossroads too. I wasn’t on a Maltese roof terrace gazing out at the blue Mediterranean and drinking beer with a friend so I coached myself. It had a profound effect on my career as an author.
I’d published about nine novels and a raft of short stories, serials, courses and columns; I was a creative writing tutor and judged writing competitions. It was what’s politely referred to as ‘a portfolio career’. Translation: I would take on most paid tasks if they were connected with writing and some that were unpaid if they might prove useful to my career. This situation had come about after my husband’s career hit a bump in the road and I either had to become more fee aware or get a day job. (I often refer to this as ‘a proper job’. I shouldn’t. Writing is a proper job.)
I wasn’t in a happy place personally and felt over-stressed and underpaid. You could term it a crisis of the spirit or a pity party. Whatever, I assessed everything writing-connected under three headings, each subdivided into good or bad.
It was a question I found easier to answer than either Rosa or Zach did. It hadn’t really changed since the early nineties when I began to try and get published.
I wanted to earn a living from writing novels.
How could I achieve it? I needed a publisher who would get right behind me and also get my books into supermarkets.
I thought the best route there was to get a great agent, one who would love my books and be ambitious for me. And, guess what? It worked!
I emailed the late Carole Blake of Blake Friedmann. I knew her slightly from writing conferences and social media. The email began, ‘I know you’re not taking anybody on but I’m going to ask you anyway.’ The short version of what happened next was that I was right – she wasn’t taking anybody on. But, happily for me, she showed my work to the wonderful Juliet Pickering at the same agency and she wanted to talk to me. She was looking for some authors writing commercial fiction and I won’t pretend that you don’t need some good fortune.
I met Juliet in London for lunch and we got on well. I was transparent about what I wanted, which was a publisher who would get behind me and get my books into supermarkets. She was equally transparent that that was her job but she couldn’t issue any guarantees. She asked about ideas for future books and I gave her three. She told me which she’d feel most confident in presenting to publishers and I had that happy feeling you get when something clicks into place. It was the one I most wanted to write. It was an idea that I’d already received a green light on from my old publisher, but they’d wanted a novella. I thought the idea had enough meat for a novel.
Disappointingly, Juliet didn’t agree to represent me. She asked me to write the book first. The snag with that was by the time I’d spent a year on the book my old publisher would be expecting it. It would be … awkward. I asked if I could send Juliet the traditional three-chapters and outline instead. Would she make a decision at that point? She agreed. She told me later she’d already made up her mind to offer to represent me but wanted to go through the process in the right way.
Takeaways from this meeting: honesty and transparency on both sides. Accepting the commercial realities of publishing. Listening to what was on offer. Putting forward alternatives. Taking disappointment on the chin because, let’s face it, a writer’s life is full of it.
The exciting day dawned and I turned up in London for meetings. The first was with Avon Books UK, HarperCollins. Once again, everything clicked. We got on well, we shared similar visions. Another stroke of good fortune: a slot for an author who would write a winter book and a summer book had opened up on their list, just as my agent rocked up with a winter book and a summer book! The winter book was ready and the summer book not so that played into there being a longer dip in income than might otherwise have been the case but still, outside I said to my agent, ‘I think it’s going to be Avon.’ I never wavered from that and Juliet got down to terms with them for a two-book contract.
The ebook was going crazy. It went to number one on Kindle UK for five days in the run-up to Christmas 2016. I’d sold my first short story to a national newsstand magazine in 1996 so it had taken me twenty years to be an overnight success! It’s hard to describe the joy and euphoria, the sense of disbelief. I laughed and cried. Twitter went mad with big-hearted compliments from other authors, from my agent and editor jumping in with their own cries of joy. My book had outsold every other ebook on sale in the UK. I had to pinch myself.
I won’t take you through every other rung on the ladder because I have edits to do but the milestones continue. Just for the Holidays was nominated for a Romantic Novel Award. A new contract was offered and my editor stated her next goal as to make me a Sunday Times bestseller. I laughed out loud and said, ‘Well, good luck with that!’ The very next book, The Little Village Christmas, was a Sunday Times bestseller. The Christmas Promise was a bestseller in Germany. The rights team at Blake Friedmann sold my books into translation. Books charted in the Top Fifty and even the Top Twenty. Avon extended the scope of my contract to include Canada and the US. A Summer to Remember won the Goldsboro Books Contemporary Romantic Novel Award 2020 and One Summer in Italy scored me my first Top 100 position in the Amazon Kindle US chart. Research has taken me to France, Italy, Malta, Sweden and Switzerland.
It’s A LOT of hard work, not just from me but from everyone at Blake Friedmann and Avon, but it’s wonderful. I set out to earn my living from writing novels and I do. Summer on a Sunny Island is my eighth book with Avon and Christmas Wishes will come out later this year. A further two books are contracted.
Takeaways: work hard … and work with the right people.
The narration of Summer on a Sunny Island is superbly performed by Lesley Harcourt, who’s been in Taggart and all kinds of other cool stuff. You can find out more about her here. She kindly agreed to chat with me by phone to get the voices of Rosa and Zach as I heard them. I also helped with the Maltese place names and, by the end of the conversation, wished I hadn’t put quite so many in! She probably felt the same.
Or you may find Summer on a Sunny Island, along with my other audiobooks, at your local library. I hope you enjoy audiobooks as much as I do. Even daily tasks like cooking become a pleasure if someone’s telling me a story as I work.
Summer on a Sunny Island has been in the UK Kindle Top 100 for almost all of June. Thanks to EVERYONE who has bought, read and left lovely reviews. Every review is deeply appreciated. The ebook is still 99p but that may end today, 30th June 2020, so grab it if you want it!
You might have seen a few of my pix on social media as I created a Mediterranean garden while I mainly stayed at home as part of the move to stem the progress of Covid-19. When we moved to this house, years ago, the garden was bisected by a stone wall. At that time, I took it down and used part of the stone to build a rockery – now a rather overgrown but pretty hump by the pond in the garden landscape – and raised beds in a far corner of the garden.
Over the years, the raised beds became overgrown, not least by a conifer that I’d planted behind them to hide next door’s shed. The conifer grew like Jack’s beanstalk and was in danger of collapsing a drain so it had to come down. It left a fresh view of next door’s shed, not improved by the years, and a jungle with the old stone beds lurking somewhere in the middle.
The decision was made to reclaim the corner of the garden with a shed of our own (if you can’t beat them, join them). Builders moved in to create the base and, as it’s the sunniest spot in the garden, I took the opportunity to lobby for a patio as part of the same project, which eventually came about. And it left us with a load of stone, gathered into two heaps by the builders and left.
Last year, I took this photo in Malta.
I decided I wanted to use the stone to create something similar in Northamptonshire.
It was going to be interesting because the stone was heaped on the site of the eventual Mediterranean garden and the whole area was a mess of holly, ivy, cotoneaster and weeds that had held sway for several years. I began by making the two heaps of stone into one. I wish I’d taken a pic of the eventual heap because it was about as tall as I am. Then I began to dig. The digging took weeks and the garden wheelie bin was stuffed time after time.
Puppy-in-law turned up to ‘help’ by getting into holes I was digging and trying to tempt me to throw sticks for him. Unfortunately, I decided to put the stick of the moment out of his reach …
He jumped up and knocked the top off the birdbath and a chunk broke off. Now I look at the pic I see it was already cracked.
Here’s a quick trip through digging progress followed by the laying of the membrane and stone.
Eventually, I had … THIS!
You’ll notice the birdbath was still broken, although the missing chunk is turned away from the camera. After trying unsuccessfully to find a replacement top, I decided to make the most of what I had and it became a planter instead.
So that’s my Mediterranean garden – and an area that shouldn’t need weeding for a while!
Isn’t it great when a website asks to feature you? You might already be familiar with ManyBooks.Net not just for their author interviews and other free content but because of their free downloads of out-of-copyright books. They contacted me recently and offered me the opportunity to be interviewed for Author of the Day.
You can read more about Team Sue Moorcroft here. The street team has its own private Facebook group and as well as getting my news first you’ll have the opportunity to help choose character or place names for my books, share posts and general join the community.