Work In Progress 4.9

Starting with Secrets

120,000 words and I am about to start the last chapter. When that’s done, I will start on the second draft, although I have already done some editing. I was knocked sideways by a combination of allergies, a head cold and my 4th Covid vax all arriving on the same day, and haven’t been up to much these past three weeks. I’ve improved in the past couple of days, apart from a couple of hours of constant sneezing first thing in the morning, so I am able to get back to the typewriter. I did some writing during this time, but wasn’t happy with the results, so instead, I returned to chapter one and read through what I had so far, and made improvements. This also helped me see what needed to be explained and answered at the end of the book.

All being well, the first draft of Starting with Secrets will be done in the next couple of days. As this is part one of a two-parter, I need to devise a last chapter which is both an ending and a beginning. If the two books were a film, I would now be at the halfway point and the big twist, or something which pushes the story in another direction. That other direction will be the follow-on book, The Larkspur Legacy, and I already know how that is going to end, and what will happen along the way.

Before then, though, there is this one to finish and polish, a cover to devise, a blurb to write, the proofreading to do and an illustration to commission. All that will happen after I’ve finished the second or third drafts, so don’t hold your breath just yet.

Instead, if you haven’t embarked on the action-adventure, male bonding, bromance, and historical mysteries based on the truth series which ire the Larkspur Mysteries, you should start at book one, Guardians of the Poor.

Reader Reviews and What to Make of Them

Every self-published and trad-published author wants and needs reviews. Every author also dreads them. Some don’t read them, while others learn from them. I bet some say they never read them, but they do, and some read them and say they are not affected by them when they are. Today, I wanted to write a few words about how I deal with reviews and give my opinion on the subject of reader reviews and what to make of them.

Books are Like Hotels

Reviews of anything help buyers decide whether to buy the product or not. I’m not just talking about novels here, but anything. Yesterday, I was looking for a hotel to stay in on a forthcoming trip, and went to one of the popular booking sites to see what was available. In a way that a reader will first be attracted to a cover, I was first attracted to the location of the hotel. Next, as a reader will then read the blurb/description, I read the hotel’s details to see if it had the right kind of room, WiFi, a bar, restaurant etc. Is this the right hotel for me? It’s the same as asking, is this the right kind of story for me?  Then, as most potential readers do, I looked at the price, and finally, out of interest, I looked at the reviews.

Reviews, therefore, come pretty low on my list of things to check before committing to a purchase, and that applies to books as much as it does to hotels or any product. The thing is, I only read the first couple of reviews, or I choose to read only the five-star ones. I also look at the chart of how many five, four, three etc., stars a product has, because if the balance is tipped towards one end of the scale, I get a pretty good impression of the overall suitability of the product according to the majority of previous customers. I get a benchmark. That process can take two minutes, or it can take ten. Either way, other people’s views are low on my list of things to check, but that’s just me, and reviews remain an important factor in a buyer’s decision-making process.

Why are Reviews Important to Authors?

So, if I am saying that reviews are a low priority, why do I then say they are so important for authors? There are several reasons:

  • The more reviews a book has, the more the book has been read, and that suggests to the potential buyer that the product is worth buying. People have bothered to buy it, so it must be popular, right?
  • Reviews give the author the chance to hear feedback from their readers.
  • Reviews can be used as quotes for publicity. They can provide impartial publicity from a third party.

Not everyone leaves a review, but many readers give a star rating. The higher the rating, the better the book. In theory. There are firms out there who hire people to leave good rates and stars even on books that are dreadful, and the aim of these firms is simply to make money. That, to my mind, is crass and damaging, but it happens.

How to Handle a Bad Review

There is a difference between a bad review and a review of a bad book. When authors say, ‘I had a bad review,’ they usually mean someone slagged off their great work. When I say, I had a bad review,’ I mean the review was badly written. We should say, ‘I received a low-star rating,’ or, ‘A reviewer didn’t like my book,’ but, because it’s what most of us mean, I’ll take a ‘bad review’ as meaning someone gave a negative opinion of my work. An opinion, after all, is all a review is.

You may know that I have written a very successful series of novels, The Clearwater Mysteries. (Successful for me, at any rate, because the series now pays my rent.) That series started with my first attempt at an historical, mystery-romance mashup, ‘Deviant Desire.’ I wrote it, published it and waited for my first review.

It was dreadful. A one-star rave about how awful the book was, and on first reading, I was saddened. Then I read it again, and realised that it wasn’t a bad review, it was an appallingly written, vindictive review that not only gave away some spoilers (thus ruining the read for many others), but was also inaccurate. I concluded that the review had been written either by someone with a general hatred of self-published novels, or by someone who wished they’d written thought of writing the book first. A disgruntled would-be author bitter because they couldn’t do any better. Whoever wrote it, and for whatever reasons, the book remains my most popular publication, and the stream of five and four-star ratings, and the wealth of positive reviews, more than outweighs one person’s negative opinion.

Reviews are Nothing More Than one Person’s Opinion

And that’s the point. Reviews are nothing more than one person’s opinion. Take them to heart, learn from them, agree or disagree with them, or consign them to history and forget about them, they are always only what one person thought of your work. That goes for whether it’s a badly written spiteful attack, or a glowing accolade of effusive adjectives and love. It’s what someone else thinks, and there’s nothing you can do about that because everyone is entitled to an opinion, and an opinion, according to the dictionary is simply: a view or judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge.

I’ll just repeat part of that to make you feel better: not necessarily based on fact or knowledge.

Reviews are Your Connection to Your Readers

Good or bad, positive or negative, reviews are your connection to your Readers. This morning, I read a post on a Facebook group where the receiver of a negative review reacted with an excellent attitude. She understood that her writing wouldn’t connect with everyone, and that everyone has the right to an opinion. It was the word connect that resonated with me and made me think. Having thought, I came up with this advice.

No matter whether a reader writes good things about your work or bad, they wrote something. Your work connected with them. It made them react, and isn’t that what us writers are meant to do? Aren’t we here to cause a reaction in others? Beit joy, sadness, thought, anger, pride, outrage, hatred, or laughter… Beit anything, it is a reaction. By writing a review, the reader has proved that the story moved them enough to pause in their day, not to move straight onto their next Kindle purchase, or go back to the housework, but to stop, think, and put virtual pen to paper.

So, the next time you receive a negative review, be happy that your work moved someone enough to make them pen a reaction. No matter what that reaction is, you did your job. As an author, you made someone care. Bravo! Now get back to work.

Work In Progress 4.8

Starting with Secrets, The Larkspur Mysteries Book Six

This week’s update sees me still at 118,000 words, but for a good reason. Sometimes, when writing a longer novel, it’s important to do as Thomas Payne used to do when a butler: stop, take stock and start again. In the case of Starting with Secretes, I have gone back to the beginning to start reading again, rather than rewriting; that will come later. I wanted to be sure that the ending I originally envisioned will still work with what I have created so far.

This week has been about rereading from chapter one, changing the odd typo here and there, and omitting some repetition. I am gaining a clearer understanding of where every character is at, emotionally as well as within the action, and where I need them to end up in a few chapters’ time when I reach the end. The end, by the way, is also the beginning of the next novel, because Starting with Secrets is the first part of a longer story. Having said that, it is also a complete story in itself in that character conflicts resolve, and certain characters grow. There will be a sense of something ending, and yet something left unfinished, and that’s why I have to get the ending just right.

I will get there, probably in a week or so. I am aiming to have the book finished by the end of October at the latest, so it can either be in proofreading or publication when I am away at my Stepson’s wedding in early November. Stay tuned.

Some of the Clearwater family who also appear in the Larkspur Mysteries. Left to right Andrej (Fecker), Mrs Norwood, James Wright, Thomas Payne when a butler and Jasper Blackwood.

From Dreams to Secrets

What I did then Vs what I’d do now.

Times have changed, and we’ve often rewound the clock…’

The opening lines of ‘Anything Goes’, and the starting place for today’s blog.

Not only have times changed, but so has my writing. It has changed greatly from when I wrote ‘Other People’s Dreams’ in 1996 to now, when I am writing ‘Starting with Secrets’, my 35th novel. I thought it would be interesting to look at how I write 26 years after beginning my career. Reading what I have already published is not something I do very often, because I always think ‘I wish I’d written that better,’ and that causes regret. However, it is a useful exercise as long as you turn the ‘I wish I had…’ into ‘The next time, I will…’ and learn from your own naïveté.

The more I have written, the more I have learnt to write better.

Let’s start by improving that.

The more I write, the better I get.

I don’t like the word ‘better’ or ‘get’ come to that, and ‘come to that’ is not necessary.

The more accurate I become? The more literary? The more I improve?

The more I write, the more improved my writing becomes…

You know what I am trying to say. Like a fine wine, a writer improves with age, as long as he continues to write, criticize his own work, and learn from his experience. The first novel I wrote is called ‘Other People’s Dreams,’ a line from a song by Janis Ian that has always resonated with me.

Other People’s Dreams

I began writing this novel while on holiday on Symi, Greece in 1996. When I returned home, I read parts of it to my flatmate and, as all new writers do, I thought it was the best thing since The Catcher in the Rye. It wasn’t, but my flatmate was encouraging, offered positive advice (he was a published journalist), and most of all, encouraged me to finish it, and then rewrite it. I rewrote it several times, and then put it away, and it didn’t see the publishing light of day until some years later.

The story opens with an advertisement. A thirty-six-year-old man is looking for four handsome young men to crew his yacht in the Greek islands. It’s a perfect summer job opportunity, but there are ‘Certain strings attached.’ That’s the hook, and I liked the way it set up the premise and a little mystery.

Then, we have a section of a screenplay in which there is an accident at sea. That’s unexplained, and we have another hook.

Then we have a flashback which sets up a third hook as we wonder what that story is all about, and it’s not until after that’s done that the present-day story starts.

Blimey. These days, I wouldn’t write so many introductions.

In the next chapter, we meet one of the four young men who will form the crew. This scene sets up people’s reactions to the advertisement, the ‘present day’ to separate the action from the flashback, and a character called John. Fine.

Then, we jump to a swimming pool, and we meet Mick, another of the four, and a character who doesn’t know where he’s going or what he’s doing. He will become the impact character when we finally meet the anti-hero.

Which we do in chapter four. Yippee! We finally feel the story is settling down, and then we’re hit with the job applications. These are presented as snippets of letters, and the chapter gives us more of an insight into our anti-hero, Jake, and another of the boys who will be the third to join the crew. It’s a neat device, and I still use letters in my novels as they make the stories feel more real. Letter writing is also a good way of putting across a character’s inner thoughts. I am using the device in ‘Starting with Secrets.’

As ‘Other People’s Dreams’ progresses, we meet the fourth character, and the first act comes to an end when Jake has selected his four men, and they are about to set off to Greece. Meanwhile, the flashback story has also reached its act one ending as the man in the past meets the object of his lust, a Greek lad called Andreas.

Looking back at the book now, it’s interesting to see that I must have had a natural feel for the four-act structure even though I knew nothing about it. There’s a turning point halfway through both stories (the flashback and the present day), and both lead to a crisis and then a climax and resolution. It’s at the climax that we know for sure how the two stories and the screenplay relate, though most readers would have worked that out along the way.

When I sent OPD to a publisher, and they sent it to their readers for an opinion, I received some positive criticism with the rejection. Although the readers found the characters ‘well drawn, especially the Greek man, Nikos, their final decision was ‘Almost but not quite’, which I think should be the title of my autobiography. I wasn’t disappointed, but took the critique on board and was actually quite buoyed by it. So much so, that I looked for an agent and found one. She took OPD to read, and I was so thrilled, I immediately began a second book.

This was a dreadful thing full of dodgy sex and a murder mystery. Set in the street in which I lived in Brighton, it was titled ‘Neighbourhood Watch.’ Although it was never published, it did turn up on some gay adult sites, because I licenced it as filler content along with some erotic short stories. This, by the way, was years later, and as far as I know, it might still be out there. I sent ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ to the agent, she read it, had a heart attack, and emigrated to Spain.

Almost but not quite…

Dreams Vs Secrets

Looking back at OPD and the way it is written, I can see plenty of things I would not do now, and I don’t just mean the structure of the opening. When examining your own past work, it’s important to look at everything from characterisation to the old ‘show and tell’ mystery, to the sentences themselves. I do this on every rewrite of every book, and there are now particular things I look out for and try to avoid.

Here are some examples of what I did in older novels that I try not to do in the newer ones. Some are necessary, some are unavoidable, but the fewer I have of them, the better I feel. (The more satisfied I feel, damn it!)

Starting a sentence with ‘He…’

At some point in my writing past, I noticed I often started sentences with He. He heard no engine, no unnatural noise, just the animals. That’s telling not showing. We know who we are reading about, we’re in his point of view, so why not write, The silence of a dead engine was the canvas on which goats and sheep painted their bleating. Well, it’s a bit naff, but I am thinking off the top of my head. Starting a sentence with He is fine now and then, but in some passages of my early books, I do it all the time. It’s a cop-out. He saw… He knew… He felt… These, to my mind, are all telling and thus, robbing the reader of the chance to experience the atmosphere.


This is why I have a proof reader. My punctuation, I notice, is based on how I speak, and is not always grammatically correct. I have to admit, now I use a proof reader, I don’t bother dithering over whether my punctuation is 100% accurate, because I know someone else will sort it out. However, I do know what to avoid. The other day, someone showed me the first proof of their first book, and with great excitement, asked me what I thought. I opened it at random and leapt in shock. The whole thing was in a sans serif font, Ariel or something. That’s a no-no, because serif fonts like Times New Roman are much easier on the eye when reading large blocks of text. Sans serif is fine on web pages like the one you are reading now, but, in my opinion, they should be kept out of print books.

Another thing this chap had done was hammer out exclamation marks as if they were the three-million rivets on the Titanic! I mean, one or two in a novel is fine, but eight or nine on each page! I mean, that’s overkill! Exclamation marks add emphasis for sure! But they also add an upturn in your reading voice! And if every sentence is exclaimed, the reading suffers from hiccups! And repetition! You see what I mean?!

?! is even worse, and try to avoid starting sentences with And and But. Although it can be argued it’s a style thing, there’s always a better way to start a sentence than with a conjunction.

Similar words

Again, my proof reader comes into play when I write discreet but mean discrete. The same applies to practice and practise, and several others. However, thanks to her notes, I now know to check certain words to ensure I have the verb rather than the noun, or the adjective rather than the verb. I also know what my most common typos are, and I keep a list of them so I can run a search/find on the full manuscript and change form to from and fro to for, etc.

Repetition reminders

Something I do a great deal of when writing a first draft is remind myself that I have already said that. I will state a fact the reader needs to know, and then I’ll state it again from someone else’s point of view later, and probably, do it a third time. This is a subconscious thing in the first draft, and I do it because I am unsure if I’ve mentioned the fact before. Either that, or I repeat it so the reader knows a different character knows the fact. I reckon a reader only needs to be told once, so, in the second draft, I consciously look for such repetitions and ask myself, ‘Do we know this already?’ Very often the answer is yes, so I take it out. An exception might be if a vital fact or clue is mentioned in chapter one and comes into play again in chapter thirty; then, it’s acceptable to remind the reader, but it must be done subtly.

Shoe Leather

Every chapter must have a point, and I keep a list I call POC. Point Of Chapter. As long as the plot or character details I want known come across, then the chapter has a point. That’s one thing, but another is the shoe leather scene, as they call it in screenplay writing. These are scenes to be avoided and, in some screenplays, they are there because the writer needs to present 90 pages and only has 87. A chapter only needs to be as long as it needs to be, you don’t have to aim for 3,000 or 4,000 words. In fact, it is better to vary the length of chapters as it is to vary the length of sentences. If your chapter feels too short, don’t bung in any old description or, worse, repetition just to make it longer. I used to do this, but now as I reread, I think to myself, ‘Do we need this?’ ‘What’s the point of this paragraph?’ ‘We’ve been here before.’ ‘We’ve done this…’ Ad infinitum

And Finally, Cyril

I am in danger of wittering on ad infinitum, so I will stop there. The point of this post has been to highlight how a writer can, and must, learn from his or her own writing. The above is simply an early morning reflection on what I have to say about the subject, and I hope you found it of use. To finish with, and just for fun, I want to give a few lines from both ‘Other People’s Dreams’ (1996) and ‘Starting with Secrets’ (2022, first draft). Both sections are from towards the beginning of the novels. See if you can spot the differences.

Other People’s Dreams

There was no doubt about it, the older man in the red trunks was flirting. This was the second time he had walked slowly past the lifeguard station, staring up and looking for a moment too long. Mick caught his eye again and immediately looked away, tiring of the attention. Not only was he working, he was simply not interested.

He had become used to the admiring glances of the men and women whose lives he guarded for six hours a day; there was no more novelty to it.

Starting with Secrets

[Character name]* tore the page from the newspaper, and threw the rest into the coal scuttle to use as kindling. Beyond the window, a sickly glow of yellow light coloured the overhanging fug, through which came the sound of clatter-carts and costermongers calling their wares, the sharp cackle of the prostitute and the crash and roar of warring couples. A policeman’s whistle pierced the night, and boots thudded on the cobbled street, chased by others and accompanied by shouts. Slops cascaded from the room above to catch a child unawares, resulting in screams and foul language, and soon after, came the threatening tread of a father mounting the stairs to seek revenge.

* I removed the name because it might have been a spoiler

Other People’s Dreams is on sale here.

Starting with Secrets should be ready for publication by the end of October. It will be the sixth book in the Larkspur Mystery series.

Work In Progress 4.7

Last week I wrote, ‘I am fast approaching the end of draft one’ (of Starting with Secrets). I also said I was just about to head into the finale, I was at 113,000 words, and on chapter 31.

This week, I have to report I have made little progress. I am at 118,000 words and about to start chapter 33, the aftermath chapter. It has taken me a week to write what I could usually write in two days because of a variety of excuses, and not all of them fun ones.

Last week was our 5th wedding anniversary, 20 years since we came to live on Symi and Neil’s birthday all on the same day. I’d only just got over the visit from our friends we met in Canada, and I was able to get some writing done on Wednesday. However, Thursday came along and with it came a surprise visit from my nephew, and a late-night dinner party for 24 people at the taverna. On the previous Monday, I had woken up with bad hay fever but had to have my 4th Covid jab, so just got on with it. By Wednesday evening, I was feeling pretty done in, but kept going through the dinner party and celebrations the next night. Friday, however, and over the weekend, I was able to do little more than bang out some paid typing (because I had to), sit on the sofa playing SimCity and blow my nose, sneeze and groan. I’m still feeling knackered, and I think the hay fever was actually a cold which, on top of a few late nights and a C4 jab, flattened me.

So, there’s my excuse for only writing 4,000 words in a week. Today, cold or no cold, I am battling on and changing my routine. I intend to pause my typing work when the sun comes up, walk around the block for half an hour, get back to work, and then dedicate the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon to Starting with Secrets.

Check back in next Wednesday for the WIP and I hope to be able to tell you I am about to start the last chapter. We shall see.

A Quick Journey Through ‘Starting with Secrets’

A Quick Journey Through ‘Starting with Secrets’

Don’t worry, I am not going to give away any spoilers. Today, I’ve put up images of some of the ‘props’ featured in the next Larkspur Mystery. These are very general, so don’t take the images as the actual locations or props, because if I did that, I would be giving away the answers to clues the Clearwater crew must solve on their treasure hunt. When I say props, I mean all manner of things that are used in the story, and I include locations in that—but not the places you will see below.

I find visual aids such as photos help me imagine my locations, many of which I have never been to, and some of which don’t exist. Larkspur Hall, for example, is modelled on a few stately homes and not just one. So, here are a few images that have inspired locations or ‘things’ in the next book (and one or two for part two of the story, The Larkspur Legacy, which will be the next book). This is purely to whet your appetite. If you want to know how the writing is coming along, check the Wednesday WIP blog.

It starts with a compass. (Btw, Neil bought me one just like this for our wedding anniversary last Thursday.)

I couldn’t resist some silverware

Then, there’s something to do with an old barn…

A country house…

And then to London…

There will, of course, be maps and plans…

And we go to somewhere like this:

And later, there will be a bit of this…

And along the way, there will be a little drama…

And, you’ll meet a new character (or two).

[Photos from Wikicommons]

Work In Progress: 4.6

Starting with Secrets

So, where am I now…? I am up at 113,000 words, and the climax is about to get underway. I have two characters trying to reach three others before they are in mortal danger. A storm has just broken, the land is flooding, and there’s something to do with a crumbling building that holds a vital clue…

It’s all go.

I haven’t been able to write as much as I wanted these last couple of days, mainly because of taking on some necessary freelance work and having my 4th Covid jab, which, on top of a cold, knocked me out for a day. We also had friends visiting yesterday, a couple we met on our trip across Canada in 2020 when we had to race home two days early because Covid broke out. The two days we missed were a stay in Athens we’d planned, but as the city was, by then, closed, it didn’t matter. That’s a story for another day. Today, I am sitting down to write at least half a chapter of Starting with Secrets, and I imagine I have four more chapters to go before I can leave you wanting more. This book is half of a longer story, which will probably bring the Larkspur Series to a close. Kind of.

I have an idea for a book after ‘The Larkspur Legacy’ which will be a companion book on the side. There are things that need explaining which wouldn’t make an entire 100k novel. What I am mulling over is the idea of having some short stories, character outlines, background information, illustrations, cuts and outtakes from the Clearwater and Larkspur series, and putting them together in one volume that fans of the two series will enjoy. At the moment, I am playing with the title, ‘Barbary Fleet and Other Matters’, because one of the things we’ve yet to discover is how Fleet came to be at the academy. What’s his history, and why does he call Clem Mr Yeobright? Then, we might want to know about Frank Andino and his past tribulations. There’s a big gap in the story of Edward and Henry’s four years of survival in the Old Nichol Slum, and what happened to the men who entrapped Chester Cadman? Come to that, what happened to Skaggot from ‘Guardians of the Poor’? I may also write some vignettes for the other minor but fun characters like Doc Markland, the barrister, Cresswell, and Mrs Norwood…

That’s all for the future. For now, I’m heading off into the finale of ‘Starting with Secrets’ and I am fast approaching the end of draft one.

I Can’t Stay Long

I can’t stay long today because I am halfway through a climax. I mean, I am halfway through writing the climactic scene of ‘Starting with Secrets’ and don’t want to lose my impetus. This is another way of saying I haven’t had time to prepare an in-depth blog for today, or if you like, this is an excuse for laziness. Well, it’s not really, because I have been writing a lot, for my novel and for other people. I am averaging around 7,000 words per day at the moment. It’s no wonder I’ve got a bad back.

I was going to write about what makes a good story climax, and I will do that one day soon, but off the top of my head, I’d say a good climax is the pivotal point in the story, whether it’s an action one (like I am working on) or a romantic one. It’s the point when everything comes together in a section of drama that turns the plot. I use them to insert twists during or after the high-octane action, and also to insert questions marks. I.e., what happens next?

Thinking back, in the Clearwater and Larkspur series, I have set my climaxes in a variety of places and situations.

A burning warehouse

On a runaway steam train

The Royal Opera House during a performance

A disused lighthouse and a London court

At a formal dinner at a stately home

Hanging over a 1,000-foot drop down a mineshaft

At a piano

A race to meet a departing Atlantic liner

A Scottish cliff edge

A sword fight

In a church crypt

A fogu on Bodmin Moor

At a masked ball

Disused smugglers’ tunnels

The Savoy Hotel

All these places and dire situations have seen the culmination of a long and hopefully interesting mystery, and each of them has then led the main character(s) off in a different direction. They also make use of weather, daylight, nighttime and other outside and uncontrollable factors as a way of heightening the tension.

My ‘Starting with Secrets’ characters are about to do battle, there’s a race against time, a storm’s a-coming in, and by the time the climax is over, we will have seen a dramatic twist and you’ll be left hanging. Not literally, but hopefully, you’ll want to know what happens next. That won’t happen unless I get back to work, so with that, I shall carry on climaxing and see you back here on Wednesday for another work-in-progress update.