Count Down…

rocket

Ten, nine, eight…only three more days ‘til launch day. On January 11th my novel “Shadows on the Grass” will be launched as an e-book. The past few months have been busy editing, re-editing, blogging, tweeting and sending out newsletters. I’ve been in touch with bloggers and reviewers and am very grateful to all of you who have agreed to host a blog tour, or write a review.

There’s an event scheduled on Facebook for the evening of the 11th but otherwise there is not much left to do. These next few days will be ones of anticipation and not a little nervousness.

Launching a book is like sending a child out into the world. You hope you’ve done everything to prepare them but there is still that underlying thread of concern. Will they be all right? Will they cope? What will they do if things go wrong? And in the case of a novel, will people like it?

Still, like the process of childbirth itself, there comes a moment when there is no going back. You’re committed and that’s it.

Shadows Grass Final Cover

So “Shadows on the Grass” out you go and to quote my favourite Vulcan “Live long and prosper.”

 

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How to choose a cover for your novel

“Shadows on the Grass” being on the verge of publication this has greatly exercised my mind.

Conventional wisdom appears to dictate that covers must signal the genre. This of course is good marketing. A potential reader knows exactly what sort of book they are buying by the cover. All well and good you might think.

However, with the rise of the generic cover I am not too sure about this approach. As I see it and I’ve spent a lot of time looking at book covers over the past few years, books that all look the same, do their writers no good.

The image on the front says, thriller,51IUJqx80OL._AC_SR160,160_51QaRt50aUL._AC_UL320_SR210,320_ or romance, historical novel, but since one book looks very much like another how do you make up your mind which one to choose.

The answer: pick the author you already know.

Great for the established writer. Generic cover, name in large font, job done.

Not so good for someone starting out. Why should I buy a book by a writer I know nothing about when the same type of book by an established author is easily available. By choosing them over the unknown I am sure of a good read and money well spent.

To be honest, covers are so similar that we might as well go back to the days of Penguin who used a simple colour scheme, two solid bands of colour sandwiching a band of white, as very general way of identifying the genre of the book.  Green covers were generally for crime novels, cerise (or pink to some) was travel and adventure, dark blue were biographies, red for drama, purple for essays, and yellow was for miscellaneous titles that did not fit into any of the above categories.  The most common and most famous colour scheme was orange for Penguin’s fiction. Those iconic and instantly recognisable novels were found on every reader’s bookshelf from World War II to the Swinging Sixties.

These colour-coded books were not only inexpensive to manufacture but they were a marketing masterstroke. Everyone could spot a Penguin book from 20 yards away. Even today, decades after Penguin stopped issuing those designs, the orange paperbacks stand out from the crowd in every used bookshop.md20443829428

 

 

Simple effective and no long hours spent on finding the “perfect” cover.

Since this is not an option for me, I’ve decided to go rogue. My covers feature original art work. My sister Anuk Naumann  lets me use her image and her paintings are turned into covers by the very talented Peter Coleborn. Thanks to them the covers of “Picking up the Pieces” and now “Shadows on the Grass”Cover 1 are certainly unique and catch the eye in any pile of best sellers.

On Peeling a Parsnip

Snowy garden

It’s quiet here in the kitchen. The back garden is covered in snow, there are no cars going up and down the hill. Everyone appears to have retreated into the warmth of their houses. I am tempted to put on Radio Four, but desist and am rewarded by silence. It’s very peaceful standing here by the sink preparing to peel the parsnips to go into the soup.

The vegetables straight out of my friend Joan’s allotment are gnarled and misshapen. For a moment I am tempted to discard them. This is going to be no easy task and I have a fleeting understanding of why supermarkets only stock “perfect” fruit and veg.

I will, however, not be daunted. Food is food and ruled by “sell by dates” we are too prone to throw away what is good and wholesome. Besides, these parsnips could not be fresher. So I begin.

As I cut through their awkwardness, trying to simplify their shape, I am reminded of Mimi, in “House of Shadows” and how when the Russians invade her home town, she fights her way through the queue to buy food for her family.

“White light dazzles as another image floods her memory. The sun beats down on her head. Already, she feels the sweat spring up on her shoulders, is aware of the dampness under her arms. Her hands grip the handle of her basket. “Please,” she prays, “let there be meat today. If only a bone to make stock.” The shopkeeper opens his shutters, the queue shuffles forward. Mimi brings the corner of her basket hard into the side of the woman in front of her and forces herself to the front. She will do whatever she must to make sure her family does not starve.”

 

The Final edit

stock-photo-closeup-of-a-blue-retro-typewriter-and-the-text-the-end-written-with-it-in-a-yellowish-foil-381820969
I’m on the last lap. My editors, Peter Coleborn and Jan Edwards, have read, scrutinised and commented on the various incarnations of “Shadows on the Grass” and all I have to do now is to put Peter’s final emendations in place.

The odd typo is easy. I’ve found a few myself the last time I did an edit. The comments take more processing. There are places where the text is not clear, or it’s not obvious which character is speaking. There are also the few clumsy or awkward sentences that need honing so that the whole will run more smoothly.

I’ve spent much of today hunched over my computer working on what I hope will be the last edit and there is only one more chapter to go. I could push on and finish tonight, but part of me doesn’t want to.

This book has been part of my life for the last six months and I’m reluctant to let it go.  Once I get to the end, then there is no more I can, or should do. Because there is a point in any book where enough is enough. Whatever its flaws “Shadows on the Grass” must be allowed out into the world.

It’s a little like saying goodbye to your child. You’ve done your best and now it’s time for them to stand on their own two feet.

For which of course I need to rev up the marketing ….

Why write such different books?

Why do I write such different books?

Books some of

Talking to a friend about “Shadows on the Grass,” she said that it sounded more of a historical novel than the books I usually write. In any event it was different from the previous two, “House of Shadows” and “Picking up the Pieces.”

Which of course it is. While “House of Shadows” is a time slip/supernatural story, with a touch of the Gothic, “Picking up the Pieces” is a contemporary novel about the difficulties of being an older woman who has lost her job, or, as in Elsa’s case, when her ex-husband goes bankrupt, her alternative source of income.

“Shadows on the Grass,” on the other hand, tells the story of a Polish immigrant family, who come to the UK after WW2. It goes back into their history and uncovers deeply buried secrets in their past, going back as far as pre1914 Poland.

The book also explores family relationships, primarily those between mothers and daughters, throughout the generations.

Another theme is loss. The Dzierzanowski family can’t return to Poland because the country they knew no longer existed as it was virtually satellite state of the USSR, which at that time was separated from the West by what was called The Iron Curtain. Travel between the West and the Eastern Bloc was difficult, if not impossible and my own parents could not visit their relatives, until I was in my late teens.

On the surface, a very different book and yet there are a number of similarities. A sense of loss pervades “House of Shadows”. In that case it is the loss of a child, which is key to the action of the book. There is also, loss in “Picking up the Pieces”. As all three women have to face profound changes in their lives. Much is lost, but more is gained.

Again, all three books are set in Bristol. A city I know and love and which, in spite of the fact that I haven’t lived there since my late teens, still inspires much of my work.

The three genres, however, are very different. This is possibly not the best marketing ploy. Commercially successful writers tend to be those who write series of books. The most profitable, at the moment, being crime.

Why then don’t I find a genre that suits me and stick to that? If money were the sole object, then I would, but that is not why I write.

I write because I have a stories that want to be told, themes that I want to explore and to be honest, I enjoy trying out different genres and suspect I would be bored sticking to just one, especially if there were quite rigid conventions to be observed.

The other reason I write a variety of different books is because I can. Unlike some writers I am not tied in to a contract that demands more of the same, so I am free to experiment and be as creative as I want.

It doesn’t always work. There is a book waiting on my hard drive that can’t quite find its form, but when it does it fuels my enthusiasm and, on a good day, makes writing sheer pleasure.

PS. I also write children’s books, but more on those in another blog.

Cover 1“Shadows on the Grass” due to be published as an e-book in January 2018.

 

 

 

What’s in a Name?

Pensive me 2

Malgosia 

We all know that a rose “by any other name would smell as sweet”. It is, after all, a flower and you can’t change its appearance, or its scent by giving it a different name. Call the same blossom bogstink, however, and our perception of the flower might change.

Names are powerful. They carry with them a resonance and depth of meaning that work on many levels, some buried so deeply in the sub-conscious that we are not even aware of them.

This is why a great deal of time and money is spent trying to find the right name for a new product. The right name will spark a desire to own, or eat, or drink whatever it is that is on sale. A Jaguar, with its connotation of speed and glamour is for more desirable, than the now defunct Datsun Cherry.

It is also why finding your characters matters. Find the right one and so much can be implied, age, status, gender. No reader will empathise with Cruella de Ville, or Draco Malfoy, while Harry Potter is Every Boy, as opposed to Every Man.

House of ShadowsSometimes, as with Jo Docherty, in “House of Shadows” name and character simultaneously at once. It is almost as if I had already known her from somewhere in my past. I could see and hear her, I know all about her family and how and she ended up living with her grandparents.

I also knew exactly what Ann, the girl in the blue dress, looked like. It took me a time to find the portrait of her, painted by Thomas Gainsborough, but it was there in the museum Art Gallery, just as I had remembered.

Names play an important part in “Shadows on the Grass”. Cover 1The Dzierzanowski’s Polish surname sets them apart from post-war British society, in which they have to find their place.

The father, Gregor, suffers the indignity of having his name Anglicised at   work, because his work mates cannot cope with an unfamiliar juxtaposition of consonants.

Today, in a much more multi-cultural world, we make an effort to get our tongues around other people’s languages. When I was growing up, however, it was an accepted fact that no one would try.

The little girl in the picture was Christened, Malgorzata, Anna, Maria Chmielinska. Her first language was Polish and her parents, who did not have much money, sent her to a private nursery school when she was three years old, to make sure that she would be fluent in English, before she started full-time education at five.

Once at La Retraite, the nuns decided that my surname was impossible, my first name even worse and I became Margaret Anne.

Unless this has happened to you, it is difficult to understand what a huge impact this forcible re-naming can have.

For decades afterwards I struggled with this other persona. This English girl who wasn’t me.

What was worse, was that I wasn’t Polish either. At that time Poland was behind the Iron Curtain and was impossible to visit. Even communication with the rest of the family was difficult and possibly dangerous for them. I didn’t see any of my relatives who lived in Poland, until I was seventeen. By which time the political situation had changed and travel between the Eastern Bloc countries and the west was easier, though still not without its difficulties.

I still have vivid memories of the stone-faced East German guards going through our papers on the train and the way in which our possessions were searched on the way out Poland, in case we were smuggling any forbidden currency.

My sister, Anuk Naumann, she too has a story behind her name, but that is for another time, are both known not by the names we were given at birth, but by ones we either found, or grew into.

I suspect this search for identity is crucial to the way we see the world and to our art. Being uncertain of your own story is surely the greatest spur to constructing a narrative, where you, as the writer, or the artist, are more or less in control.

 

Memories: True, or False

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Cover 1“Shadows on the Grass” is partly a novel about memory. About what is remembered and what is forgotten, what matters, when it is recalled, and what does not.

At the present moment, this is a topic very much to the forefront of the news and, while I do not intend to comment on current events, it is interesting to speculate how many of our memories are what we actually remember and how many are triggered by something else.

One of my most vivid “memories” is of a bright summer day, playing in the meadow on  the hill above our house and being caught by my dad to have a photo taken.

Me aged 2Looking back, I would ask whether I truly remember this, or is it the photograph and the story I was told that sparks this “recollection.” What is even more interesting, is that when I was looking for the picture I had in mind, I could not find it in my album, so have posted this one, which I think is from the same day, in its place.

Mike would say the same about one of his earliest memories. When he was a very little boy, he’s not sure exactly how old he was, but it was certainly under three, his family lived in Kenya. His father was an officer in the King’s African Rifles and it was a time of great unrest. White settlers and their homes were often under attack and as part of their security, Mike’s family had some Rhodesian RidgebackRhodesian Ridgeback dogs and a python that slept curled up on the veranda.

He remembers sleeping on top of this snake. Apparently the reptile had been fed and it was perfectly safe to let a toddler nap on its coils.

Was this true? Although he “remembers” doing so, he suspects that it was a story that he had been told as a child and which had been embellished over the years.

This is always the problem with our pasts. Or memories make us who we are, how we see ourselves and how we present ourselves to other people. Because we always want to put out the most attractive, or sympathetic view of ourselves, we edit what we want to present and as we tell our stories, we make them more significant and dramatic with each telling.

To lose one’s memories is to lose one’s identity, which  must be one of the most harrowing things that can happen to a human being.

None of my characters in “Shadows on the Grass” suffer this fate, although there a number of family secrets that are kept well hidden and only revealed at the end of the book.