Where do ideas come from? Even if I tell myself I’m done with writing for a while – and I do, frequently – something will eventually worm its way out of my subconscious. This mutation of daydreaming is often coupled with observations of other people and happenings in their lives, as well as my own, until eventually all of these considerations are pulled together and mulled over, like some sort of fictional tombola. And for me, it’s those personal stories which add an extra layer of reality to a work of fiction. Write what you know is all about understanding your subject thoroughly, and preferably having experienced some of it first-hand.
I’ve been working with disabled people through my local RDA (Riding for the Disabled) for some eighteen months. Then earlier this year I was offered the opportunity to train as an assistant to a therapist working for WITH (Welsh Institute of Therapeutic Horsemanship). This is all about people with mental health problems, and the astonishing success of equine therapy relies purely upon the interactions between people and horses. I hope my modest experience adds a touch of reality and richness to the story of Gift Horse.
Of course, I’ve touched on horse-whispering techniques, therapies, and mental health issues in the Midnight Sky series, and part of Gift Horse is a natural continuation of that theme, one which this time connects more directly to my main character. Caroline is a product of her sheltered upbringing. In direct contrast her flat-mate, Niamh, is part of a loud, sprawling Irish family – including the gorgeous but licentious Rory O’Connor; Caroline’s nemesis. Unfortunately, Caroline is intent on pleasing everyone except herself, and there’s a price to pay…
Gift Horse is a contemporary time-slip novel about the choices women make, the healing power of horses, and the devastating consequences of human error.
I tend not to plan too much, other than factual things like dates, and timelines. And I don’t have a messy desk with endless notes stuck to my screen or big notebooks overflowing with complicated scribblings. What I do have is a good instinct for the order of things. I think this comes from reading a lot of good fiction and learning why and how something works; what to hold back, when to reveal, how much to tell, what to show, which scene works best as dialogue, or narrative. This balance will be slightly different for every writer, the literary stamp of personal style?
If there’s a parallel to be drawn between trying to break into commercial publishing and staying true to myself as a writer, then for me it’s the creative freedom to write the books I want to write. So many mainstream books are all following the same trend, and some of them feel like different versions of the same book! This might sound a bit like sour grapes, but I prefer to let a story grow and mature until it’s ready to be picked from the vine, and there’s a tremendous satisfaction in penning a story which is unique to me.
‘Ruth digs up the bones of what really matters to the human psyche and Gift Horse is no exception.’ John Hudspith, Independent Editor.
Imagine living eighteen years of your life around a mistake…
Caroline Walker’s daughter suffers a horrific riding accident. Her distraught parents wonder if she’ll ever walk again, let alone ride. And when Mollie’s blood group is discovered as rare, her husband offers to donate blood. Except Ian is not a match. In fact, it’s unlikely he’s Mollie’s father.
Eighteen years previously, Caroline had a one-night stand with Irish rock star, Rory O’Connor. Caroline fell pregnant. Deeply flawed boyfriend, Ian, was overjoyed. And Caroline’s parents were simply grateful that their daughter was to marry into the rich, influential Walker family.
Caroline turns to Rory’s friend Connor; and although his almost spiritual connection with his horses appears to be the balm she needs, Caroline cannot forget Rory, or her youth – both lost to a man she never loved. Eighteen years on and after surviving cancer Rory lives as a virtual recluse in the Welsh mountains. Through his well-meaning but interfering sister, he is shocked to discover he has a teenage daughter. Or does he?
Someone has made a terrible mistake… someone is going to get hurt…
What’s killing the indie author? Writers are sensitive souls often plagued by despondency, worn down by mindless promotion, and the inability to find a reason to not write. So I wrote this…
Do we really need any more books? The enormous volume of material available to download to Kindle alone renders the vast majority of new books coming onto the market, as more or less invisible. The number of books being published has exploded. According to the Bowker Report in September 2016 more than 700,000 books were self-published in the US alone, which is an increase of 375% since 2010. This doesn’t account for commercial publishing, or those 13 million previously published books recently made available to Kindle. Surely, the market cannot absorb this amount of reading matter? The market is completely saturated. https://www.bkconnection.com/the-10-awful-truths-about-book-publishing
The cost of visibility is increasing Readers and new authors might be shocked by the cost of advertising – BookBub is the current most effective site which offers amazing results to authors and publishers – but it comes at a price. It’s not unusual to pay in the region of £1,000 to advertise a single title. Lots of smaller sites have sprung up and they charge considerably less, but of course they don’t command anywhere near the same number of subscribers. Submit to a handful of these sites at £30 to £50 and you can soon be out of pocket. This leaves many authors at the mercy of social media, and at the risk of annoying their followers with mindless promotion. Even the commercial Facebook ‘Page’ has changed to one of pay-as-you-go. Visibility of posts has been severely restricted unless you hit that promo button and start entering your card details.
Free books Publishers have always used the loss-leader approach with free copies, usually in exchange for a review, but not always. Where does this leave the individual publisher? I don’t know any indie author who willingly gifts paperbacks on a regular basis – they cost in the region of £5-£8 to print, depending on where you get them printed, and the exchange rate. This is without factoring in the shipping costs, and not forgetting those small background invisibles such as editing, proofreading, formatting, and cover design. And this is without factoring in the time you’ve taken to actually write the book. The profit from selling a paperback can be as little as £1. Unfortunately, readers are used to browsing a huge selection of free material for Kindle and although print costs can be waived in respect of electronic formats; writing, editing, formatting, cover design, and advertising, is exactly the same as for a print book.
Poor Production Homemade covers and un-edited books give all indies a bad name. They do, but a word of caution. Authors should strive for excellence, not perfection. There is no such thing as a perfectly produced book. This is partly because a lot of the time perfection is subjective to any one individual. Even traditional publishers get things wrong and mistakes slip through. Some bloggers are quick to judge a book purely by the amount of typos, incorrect punctuation or too much padding and waffle. It’s easy to say there’s no excuse for this – and a lot of the time, there isn’t – but I do take a slightly kinder approach, albeit only slightly and I do feel some of the internet Grammar Police out there need taking to task on this and on the errors of their own scribblings. Tut-tut I spotted a run-on sentence once on a blog post written by a particularly over-zealous reviewer. This person ripped a perfectly good book to shreds with their painfully acidic views on punctuation and vocabulary. Let’s get this into some perspective.The overwhelming reason to read a book is to enjoy the story. If the story holds up, i.e. no serious, consistent issues, and I’m entertained, then I can overlook the occasional blooper, that something which takes me out of the story. Story is everything. A missing comma is just that… However, there’s another side to this woolly coin. The vast quantity of poor, unedited material out there gives the conscientious author a bad name the minute he declares himself self-published. Editing at any level attracts a cost, likewise with proofreading; but it’s a vital part of publishing a book for public consumption, and the competition to sell and be seen is at an all-time high, so, why wouldn’t you?
Reviews Another reason to develop a second skin or buy a mouth guard to prevent nightly grinding of the molars. The current product review system employed by Amazon is clearly open to error: One star: totally loved it! Three stars: not read it yet, won’t download. And abuse, on various levels: Doesn’t make any sense, completely unreadable, don’t bother. Reviews which have the power to connect with other readers do help visibility and authors can use them to some effect through social media, but not all readers review books, even if they enjoyed their free or 99p book and would have no hesitation in recommending it to others. The frustration of garnering reader-reviews is real, but then authors can be their own worst enemy. I’ve seen some writers attack readers on social media for posting a low-starred review and going on to label said reader as a troll. (Could it be that they just didn’t like the book? Consider that other potential readers will perhaps read this and back-off reviewing for fear of reprisal or getting it ‘wrong’) And if the review does have a whiff of vindictiveness about it, then surely the most sensible thing to do is to stop drawing attention to it, since this is usually the intent. And then there’s always the option to pay through sites such as Net Galley – the big book giveaway for bloggers and book reviewers in exchange for reviews, although the publisher/author has to pay a handsome sum to be listed. I do think some sites and reviewers have become a bit too powerful, but some authors are desperate enough to pay for a handful of (glowing) reviews – from any source. Amazon have a problem controlling the unethical ones, and their sister site, Goodreads, actively encourages ‘readers’ to simply rate books with no purchase required, or even a simple acknowledgement that they’ve read the book in order to validate the rating. Why not get rid of all the star ratings? If a reader has an opinion about a book, have them write a review using prompts such as characters/plot/setting/ etc. Or, is it time to do away with book reviews completely? After all, we don’t rely on this system in a real bookshop. The sample and the book description should be enough to have us decide if we want to spend our precious 99p (That’s 35p to the author).
Success. Written a best-seller? Great! Now your agent/publisher/annoying little man in your head strongly advises you to write at least two more before the end of the year, otherwise no one will remember who you are and all those knock-on sales will be lost…
I’m in the pub with my editor John Hudspith, talking about school puddings and prose, Snowdonia & the science of story-telling.
*Setting: In a darkened bar on the edge of Snowdonia, where the wild buzzards roam. *Characters: Jan Ruth, Snowdonian Author, and John Hudspith, writer, editor and Magical Wordmaster. *Plot: alcohol-fuelled ramblings. (Pantser) *Dialogue: read on...
Jan: I know you have the eyes of an eagle, but some folk say you also have the body of a crow. Is it true, or just a nasty rumour spread by Kimi? John: Probably true, going by the droppings. Jan: I think of you (only in private) as the brain of Brian. I couldn’t believe how many brains were confused by Brian, and how much sand my characters ate for dessert in Silver Rain. How do you focus on typos and daft mistakes and still manage to keep the overall shape of a novel, the plot and the character development in mind? John: Practiced instinct. My reading cursor hits each word, checking for choice, position, requirement, punctuation – one at a time and also in context – and, if approved, paddles it along to the story-collector, who sits there like some humongous wicket-keeper, catches each word in a fat mit, and adds it to the growing story-tree. If a character reaction isn’t right, or a plot hole gapes, or if something can be improved, the tree will sag and rattle and the catcher will know how to fix it. Like a dual processor, the paddle is programmed for errors of word, and the catcher for shortcoming story elements.
Jan: So, you think like a computer? John: No. Computers don’t think. But realising that your brain does act in a similar way to a computer, is good way to hone your writing/editing eye/processor. Jan: Is that how you’re able to edit so many different genres? Are there any that have you running for the hills? John: No running. Editing must remain wholly objective. Understanding the conventions of genre and the needs/requirements/expectations of each genre’s reader means putting subjectivity to one side. And yes, I have a program for that. Jan: The man with two brains? John: Five, actually, but I’ll keep the other three under wraps… for now. Jan: What makes you roll your eyes? John: Rolling one’s eyes is a subjective expression of emotion, so if you’re referring to when editing, no eye-rolling can occur…the paddle and the catcher do not know how. And, while they’re paddling and catching, I’m off elsewhere, rolling my eyes at humanity. Jan: Does that mean you never enjoy reading the stories you edit? John: Oh hell, yes. I do allow my subjective nose to poke in and get its thrills. Jan: So what thrills you the most when you begin to read a manuscript? John: That the story is one of my preferred genres, or that the writer is adept at plotting/dialogue/characterisation/scene-setting, etc. Jan: Has anything given you goosebumps recently? John: I went out the other day in t-shirt and shorts. Foolish at only five degrees. You could have hung your hat on them.
Jan: Either you’ve got the hide of a rhino or your head was clearly elsewhere. This happens to me a lot. Is it normal? My hubby says I look vacant (not all the time, but he says it quite a lot!) A rhino hide can be useful for an author to deflect the inevitable barbs along the way, but there is a fine line between a head in the sand job and confidence rooted in acceptance to learn and take advice. How do you deal with ego, because we writers are such ahem… sensitive souls. John: Showing the writer the `good` things and explaining what makes them good is the key. Then when you explain what could be improved and how, the ego usually gives a satisfied nod. Nothing wrong with egos, of course. Getting the balance right keeps the ego at bay because such balance is what the ego seeks. A smart young girl taught me that. Jan: Aw, Kimi. That’s given me goosebumps now! No, what I meant was, those goosebumps you get from words alone? John: I could associate that with a scene in Stephen King’s latest: Doctor Sleep, where Danny wakes from a pissed-up night to a flabby whore, a stinking mess of booze and drugs, and has to run to the bathroom to puke onto his own floating turd. Beautifully written. Word perfection brought the setting alive via mood and tone. Makes me shiver just thinking about it.
Jan: Sounds wonderful. How important is setting? Are you bored with my hills yet? John: You see, Jan, they’re not just any old hills, they’re always different, be they sullen peaks draped in sunset ribbons or sheened with sleeting rain or suffused with morning mist or dripping snowmelt like icing, you choose your words to carry the story’s tone…every time! I was especially impressed to see equally masterful settings in your novel Silver Rain when you take reader halfway round the world, using all the elements of place to bring the settings alive and drop the reader right in there. Jan: Thanks. Now let’s talk about sex. We all know sex sells, but it’s just as important to keep the tone consistent in a novel. No one wants to reads a sex manual, nor do they want to hark back to the old style Mills & Boon. Do you think it’s become a lot more challenging to write good love scenes which are satisfying to the reader without making them cringe? John: You said `love` scenes. Of course, they are challenging because the love portrayed must be believed by the reader, and that takes build-up. Sex scenes, on the other hand, differ from genre to genre from author’s style to another author’s style, and even to individual reader perception. Honing said sex scenes are therefore challenging to write and difficult to master. Jan: Any tips for writing good sex? John: Less is more and succinctness is sexy. Jan: Apart from the sex, what was your most challenging job ever? Can you tell? John: Easy answer… a memoir: Where Petals Fall, written by a mother who lost her daughter to leukaemia. My first go at editing a non-fiction – and at the same time, a heart-breaking – `story` – working with the author was an immense privilege, a humbling experience, and the finished work is huge testament to a courageous, determined individual.
Jan: That must have been difficult to write too, but possibly cathartic in a small way. I’m a strong believer of the adage ‘write what you know or at least have a deep understanding of what you’re trying to convey’. Would you agree that the power of her writing came from having lived through the experience, and she succeeded in a way another writer who was merely observing, would certainly fail? John: Perhaps an `observing` writer might not convey the raw emotions as well as the writer who actually experienced it, yes. Jan: In the days of agents I used to get told ‘Well, yes, it is romance, it’s almost romantic comedy, but then there’s a dark thread in it too so we can’t place you in a box, so thank you and goodbye!’ Is it possible to blend genres do you think, or is there a limit? Do you think the boundaries are too relaxed now or is that a good thing? How would you describe my genre? John: Where to start? I hate the genre label but they are necessary pointers. It is possible to blend genres. I know of one writer who experienced similar knockbacks for blending `crime` and `supernatural`. Look, it’s all about story and style, and the style of your work certainly has dark threads, certainly has romance/love/attraction, certainly has a wry touch of the comedic, but all this brings a great read. Those agents really should have been snapping you up and hawking your work. As for the boundaries being too relaxed, if it works, if it entertains, then write it.
Jan: What about your own writing? I know you’re working on something new, and after the amazing Kimi books I can’t wait to see what you come up with. Any clues as to what it’s about? John: Many years ago I tried writing the book I really wanted to write… but I lost the plot. I hope that now I can tell the story in an entertaining way, and that involves five POV characters weaved into a plot of deceit and destruction. Jan: So it’s a romance then? John: Ha-ha! In a way I suppose it is; human reliance, dependence, devotion, and the rudeness of death. Jan: Sounds like a night at our local. (It’s your round by the way… Mine’s a large Sauvignon) Five POVs is a challenge. I did this with White Horizon and I have to say it gave me quite a few headaches along the way. Is there a limit to heads? I read somewhere it was seven, before it gets too complicated for the reader. John: A POV limit? Interesting. Good POV takes time to build… five or seven would perhaps make a satisfying amount, i.e. enough space within the average (high-end) word count. Any more than that and the pages would surely need to stack up. You handled the multi-POVs very well in White Horizon. Jan: There was a good deal of planning for that book, but I have to say, in general I’m a seat-of-the- pants’ writer, whether I’m wearing tight shorts or a fetching yarn of waterproof for climbing the hills. Can you tell without looking or feeling? John: Nope. Seamless.
Jan: Always more comfortable. What about characters? Is it true you fancied James Morgan-Jones from Midnight Sky? Do you always fall in love with good ones? (Not good as in saintly, just meaty in character.) John: Oh, yes. You see, this is why blokes would like reading your novels, not just for the sultry heroines but the male characters: clumsily strong, adeptly inept, ruggedly handsome, stupidly sensible… attributes the male reader might recognise within themselves – add to that the chance of showering with a curvaceous, freckled, milky-fleshed redhead and it’s a no-brainer. Jan: Good point. *makes marketing note*. I like to write from the male POV. Does it work in general? The way I look at it is this; my target audience are women 35-65. They want to get into Al’s head, don’t they? Don’t be rude… John: They want Al’s head, you mean? Your male POVs are always great, it’s the little touches you employ, like nuts in a bathrobe pocket (sounds painful), or the clown suit, the pork pie hat, the brooding roughness of the horse-whisperer with his jumble of a kitchen, fat steaks, and lots of wine… every time you do this without fail, and every time the character is totally different from the last. It is this that makes your male POVs more than work `in general`, they’re always totally real, convincing, and the resulting reader empathy enormous. Jan: Thanks. They are my forte! What’s your favourite type of character? John: A good one. In other words I like every character… as long it’s convincing, believable, written well. Jan: Dialogue is a good builder of character, don’t you think? I find it the easiest discipline too. What advice would you give to a novice writer about the use of speech? I remember some thirty years ago trying to think of different words for ‘he said.’ Big mistake! John: Ah, yes, the invisible `said` – use it whenever it suits the flow of speech, which happens to be pretty much most of the time. And read the dialogue out loud and in character, doing so shows up errors and shortcomings with ease.
Jan: Do you find male and female writers are different to edit? John. No difference at all in the writing, but men seem less eager to ask for help. It’s a caveman thing. Jan: It’s an ego thing, possibly? When I sent my first badly typed manuscript to an agent thirty years ago (it makes me cringe now when I think about it. I had no capital L on the typewriter so I had to use a number one instead) she said it was a good story with perfectly good characterisation but littered with mistakes. She sent it to an editorial company in London, who then passed it back to me for perusal and it was covered in red pen… I was speechless! Then I got over it and re wrote it, and re wrote it again… and again. I just didn’t realise what editing and proofreading could do, and how essential it is. I didn’t make that connection; from the story in my head to the polished books you see for sale. I had no idea what happened in the middle to make it all come together. But I am forever grateful to Jane Judd for seeing that potential to develop Wild Water. So, what do you look for, initially? What do you like to see in a book? John: A crisp, clear opening paragraph that will instantly engage me, instantly drop me into place and POV, followed by the same crisp clearness … no fluff! Jan: You’re always on about fluff. Common problem? John: The number one. Over-writing, suffocating most books on a shelf near you. Jan: I must admit, you’re bloody good at hoovering up that fluff. And not just unnecessary words, you even spot misplaced spaces and commas that are italicised when they shouldn’t be. How did you get so eagle-eyed? John: Practice. When you do anything every day for years and years you will get reasonably proficient at it. Jan: You’re too modest. John: It’s my biggest fault.
Jan: How do you get in the zone to edit, is it a different zone when it comes to your own writing? John: Exactly the same:peace, quiet and gallons of tea. Jan: Of all the editors I’ve worked with, I have to say you are the most ‘switched-on’ in more than one sense. I think it’s maybe because you are an indie author yourself and know exactly what we are faced with in terms of market trends and so on. John: Yes, it helps that I’ve been down the bumpy road: written rubbish, made mistakes, and learnt a lot along the way. Jan: Oh, and I love the funny cheeky remarks about my characters too… your margins are so interesting. How important is it to have a good working relationship with authors in this way; does it help to have a similar sense of humour/borderline insanity? John: Insanity always helps. And editing SHOULD be fun. Jan: I like how you always explain the need for the edit. I’ve learnt a great deal about the finer tricks of the trade from you. John: What many authors who have never engaged with an editor realise, is that in working with an editor you’re also working with a teacher. You will learn, improve, become a better writer. Jan: Makes perfect sense, of course. Only don’t undersell yourself, Johnny. I employed a few editors before finally finding you. And believe me, they weren’t teachers. John: There’s cowboys in every trade, I guess. Jan: Doesn’t that bug you? John: Not really. Look, it’s simple, if you’re looking for an editor ask for a free sample. From the sample you will know if the editor connects with you and your work. Jan: Not every editor offers free samples. John: Then use one that does. Jan: Good advice. We’ve covered a little of everything except plotting. I think this is my weakest area and no matter how hard I try to plan, my characters tend to take over; which can be good, it means they are developing and moving the story along, but it is easy to write yourself into a dead end. I tend to be a seat-of-the-pants plotter rather than a planner. What advice could you offer to rein-in those crazy voices in my head? John: Whether you’re a careful plotter or not, it doesn’t matter: write the way that works for you. As for those dead-ends, try and at least have some plot markers in place, something to aim for, like the end and one or two middle bits.
Jan: Dessert Island time. What book would you read in the sand, and which favourite pudding would you choose to accompany the experience? I’d have to say Panna Cotta or Eaton Mess with The Misremembered Man by Christina McKenna. John: Choosing one book is hard enough but only ONE pudding? Yikes! Okay then, I’d go for Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher – multi-POVs and multi-themed, all so beautifully weaved, one can read it over and over and keep on getting hit with surprises. As for the pudding, something with custard… sticky toffee and fig or jam roly poly or spotted dick. Jan: You can only have one. John: Okay I’ll have a spotted dick. Jan: Mine’s another wine, thanks. What about childhood favourites? Mine would be The Wind in the Willows and school chocolate pudding with custard. John: Oh, I’d forgotten all about school chocolate pudd. It came with chocolate custard, lovely stuff. But there was one school dessert to beat that, most kids hated it but I loved it… semolina with those gooey brown little egg-like things plopped in the middle. We called it frogspawn. Always went for seconds. As for the book: Mr Pink Whistle – he used to love blowing his own magic flute, and such a skill might come in handy on a desert island. Jan: Ha! I loved books from an early age (and puddings). Although much can be learnt to hone a skill, I think it’s important to have that genuine love of words and read lots of different styles to become a rounded author (in every sense, I am getting too fat sat at this desk!) What other attributes would you consider important for a writer? John: You’re right about the genuine love of words, and to read lots of styles/genres is an enormous source of education. If I could add one important thing it would be the ability to step back and view one’s own work with an objective eye. So many don’t or can’t do this, and it shows in the writing. Jan: Good point. My round I think, what’s yours? John: All that talk of puddings has made me hungry. Chippy? Jan: Chippy? Bit of a walk from here! This is Snowdonia and it’s dark… get ready for goosebumps…