Thursday, 6 December 2018

Ho! Ho! Ho! Writing Christmas Fiction with Julie Hodgson

Award-winning author and Whoosh client Julie Hodgson has written for adults and children across a range of genres, including everyone’s favourite – the Christmas book! Yes, who doesn’t love a good tale of families coming together and mean-spirited humbugs learning the true meaning of Christmas, both of which are central to her hilarious book The Gift, in which long-suffering Joe is forced to team up with the mother-in-law from hell to pass tests set by Santa himself and save his wife in time for Christmas. I caught up with Julie for a quick chat about the inspiration behind the book, what goes into writing a seasonal novel and how she’ll be spending the holidays.  

What inspired you to tackle a Christmas book?

Christmas is my absolute favourite time of the year. I have already written a few Christmas stories for small children and love the subject.

What was your inspiration when writing The Gift?

Again, my love for the Christmas spirit and season. It always brings out the very best in most people. I like that.

Christmas books are often about families coming together. Tell us about the relationship between Joe and his awful, flame-haired monster-in-law.

Joe tries his best but always feels he is never good enough for Madge. She picks fault all the time without rhyme or reason. But Madge does have her ways and Joe tries to please her, just to keep the peace for Beth. Of course, when two people are thrown together it can go either way. With Joe and Madge, the results are both funny and heart warming.

Who/what inspired the terrible mother-in-law character?

We can all guess pretty well about who the mother-in-law character was based on. I think many wives or husbands have this issue with not being liked by the spouse’s mother! A son’s mother never really accepts the new woman in their son’s life … at least not every one of them! There are exceptions.

What is the most important ingredient of a Christmas book?

It’s great to have comedy, heart-warming situations and, of course, the family involved.

What advice would you give to other writers tackling Christmas books?

It’s important to have some strong characters in the book, a main one who the reader can follow. It’s essential to have lots going on, excitement, even sad situations. This will keep the reader following the story.

How important is a happy ending in seasonal writing?

To me at least, it’s very important … Although I do know it is not always the case. But Christmas is for having dreams and happy endings, especially in books.

How has creating a book with a limited window for sales affected your marketing strategy?

I never think of any one particular marketing strategy for the Christmas books, as people love them anyway … I use postcards, which are easy to give to people or leave in libraries and shops. Xmas fayres are a great way to spread the news about your Christmas saga. The cover is important, I feel, too. I always look for a wonderful cover when I’m buying a book. And now I own a book shop, but I don’t tell customers I’m an author; it’s a buzz when they pick up one of my books.

What is your favourite Christmas book?

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens!

How will you be spending Christmas this year?

As I am in Portugal this year, I am flying to Sweden to be with my grown-up children and to have a crazy family Christmas, with board games, good food and plenty of laughter. Whereas Madge has issues with Joe, I adore my son- and daughter-in-law.

Buy The Gift by Julie Hodgson on Amazon
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Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Three Incredibly Easy Ways to Make Your Character Descriptions Pop

                                                            She had blue eyes, brown hair, a blue jumper and a look of boredom that had been there since she read this description of herself.

We've all been guilty of lazy writing like this before. So, what follows are three tips to avoid listing your characters' attributes and elevate your description to make it pop.


Select Meaningful Points of Focus

Think about what you are telling your readers with your physical description. Yes, you are telling us what your characters look like, but you could be showing us so much more. What would you like us to see about your characters that’s unique to them and builds on character development?

Think about that blue jumper. She wore a blue jumper. Anyone can wear a blue jumper, but ask yourself how your character is wearing it and what it says about them. Is it new or old? Tightfitting or loose and worn? Are the sleeves rolled up? This will give you a starting point, but take it further so this jumper could only belong to your character. Does it have stains down the front? Does she fiddle with the loose threads? Perhaps it’s not a jumper at all but a t-shirt with a slogan that shows your character’s unique perspective; a shirt that he sweats through within minutes of putting it on; a painters’ shirt with more paint on it than the canvas.

And those blue eyes? She had blue eyes. What are they telling us about the character? Seventeen percent of the world’s population has blue eyes (thank you, Google). What sets your character apart from the others? What are they expressing or looking at? Do they blink particularly slowly or quickly or linger, thirsty to drink in the world around him? Or maybe there is another focal point that will tell us more about this character? His/her hands, feet, necklace, tattoo, hat, teeth?

Carefully selecting focus points is a great approach to take when describing all other aspects of your book. Think beyond literal description and about what you would like to show readers. Think about the perspective of the character viewing the room or the dog or the sky; does it affect the way you describe it? Think about who the garden or car or phone belong to; what does your description tell us about them? Use description to your advantage to reveal and develop character and plot.


Show Your Description in Action

I have touched on this in the first tip, when the character fiddles with the loose strand on the blue jumper or his blue eyes linger on the world around him. Adding movement/interaction will paint a stronger picture of your characters beyond 2D descriptions, and you are killing two birds with one stone: avoiding directly telling readers how a character feels (the greatest writing sin!) and creating more dynamic description. So, 'The nervous woman in the blue jumper' becomes 'The fidgety woman fiddling with the loose strands on her worn jumper'. 'The miserable-looking man at the bar with the blue eyes' becomes 'The man at the bar who hasn’t looked up from the glass of warm beer in his hand for the last hour nor taken a sip of it'.

Even when you are not particularly saying much of anything about a character with your description and you really do just want a character to have blonde hair and blue eyes, it will be more powerfully shown dynamically rather than in list form. So, ‘She had blonde hair’ becomes ‘I hadn’t noticed just how blonde her hair was until we were out in the light’. ‘He had blue eyes’ becomes ‘Those blue eyes got me every time. How could I say no?’.
Again, use dynamic description throughout the book, beyond character description, to elevate your writing.


Use all the Senses

So far, we have only looked at visual description, but there are five senses to play with, and the other four are quite often forgotten. What sounds does a person make and what do they tell us about the character? Perhaps they are so softly spoken that it’s almost as if they don’t want to be heard. Perhaps they crack their knuckles so loudly that it makes her jump every time. Perhaps the suit was so cheap that it squeaked. What about smell? Everyone has a unique smell and every smell tells a story. There are obvious smells, like BO and perfume, but it’s the unusual smells that get the cogs turning: ‘It was an odd combination of cinnamon and WD40; don’t ask me what she had spent the day doing.’

The more intimate senses are useful when characters are up close and personal, but touch also has a place in general character descriptions. Think of a simple handshake and what this could tell us about a character. Is it firm or soft? Hot or cold? Rough or soft?

If this was helpful, feel free to share it with others.

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Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Why are Agents and Publishers Rejecting Your Novel?

There are many reasons that agents and publishers reject manuscripts. These reasons fall into two categories: variables controlled by them and variables controlled by you. Anything from budgets and a full list could fall into the first category, to something as trivial as an agent looking at your sample after an argument with his/her husband/wife and barely reading it. That’s publishing for you – it was never meant to be easy!

Thick skin and persistence are obviously key here. Even the spotty, awkward, greasy teenager gets a date if he asks every single girl in the whole school. Every ‘no’ brings him closer to a ‘yes’, and it’s the same principle with finding a home for your book. Knock on enough doors and you eventually find an agent or publisher. Right? Well, partly, but, sticking with the metaphor, wouldn’t it be better to have a wash, reach for the Clearasil and get some dating advice?

This is where the second set of variables become important. What can you do to attract attention and impress potential backers? More importantly, what might you be doing to ruin your chances of finding representation?

Not researching the agent or publisher thoroughly

It’s tempting to send samples out in all directions to see what sticks, but wouldn’t it be better to take the time to find the best match for your work? No poetry, children’s book, sci-fi, etc. means just that. No publisher ever is going to be so dazzled by your work that they will change their ethos to work around you. Don’t waste their time. Instead, show them respect and tell them why you have chosen them specifically in your cover letter. If you can’t think of a reason, they might not be the agent or publisher for you.

Not presenting your work to their specifications

Agents and publishers each have their own specifications governing submissions. Read them! Some things are generally similar – 12pt font, Times New Roman, double-spaced, one side of A4 – however, there are variables in their content requirements – email/snail mail, long/short synopsis, one/three chapters/whole manuscript. They may ask for a reading fee, a reference, a CV. The only way to find out is to check their website or The Artists’ and Writers’ Yearbook.

Not Presenting your work professionally

Are your sample chapters, cover letter and synopsis printed on good quality paper, well-aligned, free from thumbprints? Have you put them in an A4 envelope and neither stapled nor folded them? Are you proud to send this first impression to the people that hold your future in their hands? If not, bypass the postbox and head straight to the bin.

Not checking for errors

When you have solved cosmetic problems, the next step is confronting the text. Is your manuscript full of errors? This is an interesting and difficult question; if your manuscript is full of error, you have made them and might not be aware of them. A better question would be to ask if you are the best person to judge if there are errors in your sample. I suggest getting as many eyes on deck as possible. A professional proofread is never a waste of money.         

Not reworking your manuscript sufficiently

I’m sure there is no need for me to say this, but you shouldn’t be sending anyone your first draft. The first draft is merely the clay that you can then rework into your masterpiece. It is a springboard to greater work. There are no hard and fast rules about how many times you need to edit a book, but the more work you put in, the better the result, so allow yourself to be driven by your own high standards. Again, get as many people to read it as possible. A professional manuscript assessment is a great way of looking at the novel with fresh eyes and discovering strengths and weaknesses in both the project and your writing skills.

Underestimating the role of a writer

It takes hard work, determination, practise, sacrifice and devotion to be a writer. Many authors fail to find representation until they have written a number of books, developing skills with each project. Others find success later in life, again building and honing their skills over time. If you have chosen writing because of £million book deals and overnight success stories, you may be approaching this from the wrong angle. There are no shortcuts and no replacement for a lifetime of development. Take a course, join a writing group, get as many people to read you as possible so you can gain a sense of where you are in terms of your abilities. Seeking publication is applying for the Olympics. Are you ready for that?

Underestimating the additional role of a writer

Agents and publishers are primarily looking for great, well-written books. They are also concerned with who is writing them. In the 21st century ‘who you are’ in this context means ‘who you are online’. Do you have a blog? Have you been published online or in magazines? Have you self-published? What do your Facebook and Twitter accounts look like? Are you presenting yourself as someone who is capable of building hype and publicising your own book? Do you have any significant contacts that you can share in your cover letter?      

Finally, sadly, flogging a dead horse

Your book just might not be good enough. It’s blunt, I know, but this is a reality that we all have to face at some point in our careers. We have devoted six months or a year or fifteen years to a book, we have put our souls into it, and we’ve accidentally produced a stinker. You can try to mend it, seek advice, edit hard, but some books were never meant to be. I have seen writers crushed beneath the weight of their magnum opuses for decades, unwilling to let them go because they have devoted themselves to them for so long. This is no way to live. Sometimes, it’s okay to simply let go, take what you have learned to your next project and keep moving forwards.

Hayley Sherman has been helping writers move towards publication for ten years.
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