From Hook to Book

No Small Shame – Ta Da! A Cover!

I am so excited to be able to reveal the beautiful cover for my novel No Small Shame due for release 1 April 2020. Set in Australia, in the last chaotic days of WW1, Mary O’Donnell, a young Scottish immigrant must make an impossible choice that will change her life forever. No Small Shame is a tale of love and duty, loyalty and betrayal, and confronting the past before you can seek a future.

Ventura Press (Impact Press) and Christabella Designs have created such a beautiful cover! When I was initially sent three design concepts for my feedback, this one was the Ventura team’s pick and it quickly became my favourite too.

But first, I printed out the three cover designs, cut them to size and blu-tacked them onto three published books, of similar page lengths, to get a real feel for how they might look. I left the books lying around on the kitchen bench, the kitchen table, the coffee table and my desk, to test them out, but my eye just kept being drawn to the image of the bed, the beautiful wallpaper so evocative of the era, the crooked holy picture. Plus the suggestion had been made that a tear or crack could be added to the wallpaper. Combined with the title No Small Shame, it conjured so many questions and possibilities for the story. And that was for me, the author, who already knew exactly what the story was about! Of course, at the time, each of the three designs were only concepts and all needed tweaking: fonts, sizes, colours, etc.

Well, you can see the fabulous end result. I couldn’t be happier! And I’m thrilled to have already received some really positive feedback on social media, along with people saying they can’t to read the book. I can’t wait either until No Small Shame is out in the world in April 2020.

No Small Shame – The Dreaded Edit

The dreaded round one edit for my novel wasn’t so bad! After all!

I wasn’t sure what to expect for my first novel-length edit. My previously published work has either been short fiction for children that I can truthfully say had very few changes made to the words, or short stories published in anthologies and literary magazines that were all edited in-house with no input from me. So I wasn’t sure what to expect, other than that the publisher had said that the manuscript didn’t require a full structural edit.

I was still a tad nervous before the files arrived. What if the freelance editor had different ideas? What if she wanted major changes? What if she didn’t get my book? What if she hated it? You know the type of paranoid writer thoughts fuelled by an over-zealous imagination.

Well the editor’s files duly did arrive. A huge sigh of relief could be heard as I read her report. There were some lovely words expressed ie: compelling narrative; strong protagonist, distinctive voice; highly engaging; nuanced view of human frailty, complexity of character etc. All wonderful positives to read and very reassuring to a debut novelist.

The editor provided a structural analysis and made some suggestions for better establishing some of the settings ie: where they were located in relation to other places, the mileage and time distances etc.

I also needed to do some more work on a couple of the minor characters to give ‘a stronger sense of who they are—both independently’ of my main character ‘and outside of their narrative function’. Though this involved careful thought, words-wise it only really entailed adding a few lines apiece, but these truly made a difference and either brought in or strengthened existing character traits or backstory in subtle but important ways.

I then had to tackle the issue of my ‘unwieldy syntax’. As mentioned in a previous post, the voice of my novel is distinctive and my unwieldy syntax the narrative style. But, along with the editor, I do want the prose to be readable. So a delicate dance ensued where I had to make some tricky decisions, to simplify or not to simplify. In many cases, I rewrote the sentence. Hopefully it will still be highly readable and yet still retain its unique voice.

Though I know my edit was not overly onerous as many edits can reportedly be, and I was very fortunate to be given a very reasonable deadline, being a bit on the conscientious side, I took my full allotted time to get it back. And, because I’m running behind in keeping up with my blog posts on this last intense leg of the journey From Hook to Book, before I could blog about the first round edit, the second round arrived.

It was all very straightforward. For me, the hard part was sending it back once it was done. The terror of knowing that once I pressed send, it was gone and unchangeable. The next time I would see the manuscript, it would be typeset and at proofreading stage. I would then not be permitted to make any changes unless they were true errors. Terrifying! Of course, I met the round two deadline, but I didn’t press send until the very last day!

And then I promptly got sick. A bug I couldn’t beat and a cough that wouldn’t go for six whole weeks. So I guess the edit was more stressful on me than I’d thought.

I learned so much through the process though, particularly the fascinating difference it made in adding some tiny details that expanded my minor characters and gave a deeper insight into their backstories in such small but significant ways. We writers are so blessed to have editors.

Now back to work. Guess what’s just arrived – yep, the proofread round. I know I’m going to have to sit on my hands and fight the urge to fiddle, unless I find a real, actual error.

But it’s all happening and getting so exciting! The book is in sight.

Stay tuned for a cover reveal. It’s going to be any day now!

#HNSA2019

Wow! What a wonderful weekend?

HNSA 2019 was a brilliant conference bringing together authors, academics and readers. It was a weekend featuring fabulous organisation, so many terrific panels spread over three separate streams, fantastic food, a swashbuckling sword fighting demonstration over Sunday’s luncheon, and the chance to catch up with so many fellow writers and meet so many more.

As part of the official Social Media Team, I was kept busy tweeting away during panel sessions with so many quotable quotes and tips from authors, academics and authorities in the historical fiction book world.

At the conference dinner, the shortlist and winner of the short story competition were announced, along with the winners of the inaugural Colleen McCullough Residency, established and aspiring categories. (See details at the end of this post.)

The HNSA conference was also a great opportunity to meet some of my literary heroes and come away with signed copies of their books. So many acclaimed authors including, Lucy Treloar, Robyn Cadwallader, Kate Forsyth, Sophie Masson, Nicole Alexander, Ali Alizadah, Meg Keneally, Michelle Aung Thin, Kelly Gardiner and too many more to mention. (Note to self: Next time take a bigger suitcase for books!)

I’m already excited and eager for #HNSA2021.

Since I was on the Twitter team, I think the best way to show some of the happenings and quotable tips from the conference is via some tweets. Enjoy!

Congratulations to Christina King winner the ARA HNSA Short Story contest for her story The Ink Stain. Congrats also to shortlistees: Lou Greene for her story Fare Thee Well, Dell Brand for The Driver, Nicole Wardley Dear Anna and Dorothy Simmons To Liberty.

Congratulations to Liss Morgan, winner of the First Pages Pitch Contest.

Congratulations to Sally Colin-James winner of the Colleen McCullough Residency for an Aspiring Writer. I’m ecstatic to say that I was chosen as the winner of the Established Writer category. (See link for an excited post on the award.)

 

HNSA Colleen McCullough Residency 2019

When I first saw the Historical Novel Society Australasia (HNSA) announcement of their inaugural Colleen McCullough Residency, I was blown away by the generosity of the prize and the amazing opportunity open to all eligible attendees at the 2019 HNSA Conference in Sydney last weekend.

Who wouldn’t want to spend a week on the beautiful Norfolk Island, once home and inspiration to one of our country’s most acclaimed writers? Plus airfares, transfers, hire car, tours of both the Colleen McCullough library and the island, supplied by the generous sponsors, along with the incredible bonus of staying and writing on the grounds of the McCullough estate!

I am so thrilled and excited to have been awarded the inaugural HNSA Colleen McCullough Residency for an Established Writer. AND I GET TO GO TO NORFOLK ISLAND IN FEBRUARY!!!

When the final judge of the residency shortlists, best-selling author, Nicole Alexander, began to read out a couple of telling details from the winning established author submission, ie: set in France, post-WW1 etc, my heart just about stopped beating. And when she read out my name, I really couldn’t believe it. But, eventually, I did manage to collect myself and my certificate from Nicole, and utter a few inarticulate words.

It’s taken a few days to sink in, though never the fact what an amazing opportunity I’ve been given. It’s also incredibly validating to know that the choices I made a few months ago to start my novel at a different point in the story have worked. I’m so excited about my WIP, but I won’t go into any details about the project here at this early stage of the writing.

Congratulations to Sally Colin James, winner of the aspiring category. We’ve already planned to get together at the end of the writing day and debrief, perhaps share a meal and a sunset.

No doubt, come February, this blog will feature some beautiful photos set amid the inspiration of Norfolk Island, a place I’ve always, always wanted to visit. I only wish Colleen McCullough was still in residence, per chance I could meet her. Hopefully some more of her magic will rub off on me.

My grateful thanks to HNSA, Nicole Alexander, Burnt Pine Travel, Baunti Escapes and the McCullough Estate for the opportunity, their support and sponsorship.

A Change of Book Title and A Change of Author Name!

Well the book part of the journey From Hook to Book is coming real now. Lots has been happening of late.

Quite fortuitously, an overseas trip – May/June – meant I didn’t have time to fret over what the first round of edits on my manuscript might reveal. Sadly for the editor, who became ill, but fortunately for me, the edits arrived a few days later than originally scheduled, giving me time to recover from both my travels and jetlag.

I was much relieved to discover when the edit did arrive that it was not going to be half so onerous as I’d begun to imagine. Lots of wonderful feedback and suggestions. The novel though is written in a unique voice and, it seems, often ‘unwieldy syntax’. (I did know this, however the syntax is a big part of what makes the ‘unique’ voice of the novel.) So I’m sure it was quite a challenge for the editor to have to balance the fine line between readability and messing with the voice. It was a slow process for me to interrogate every one of the suggested language changes, several times, to ensure that the voice did not become inconsistent. It was quite a give and take operation. (And I mean me agreeing, then switching back to the original and sometimes back again.)

Now that the first round edit has been returned, from what I can tell, between the manuscript, the editor and the fabulous team at Ventura/Impact Press, I think it’s going to be alright. In fact, the book may even turn out to be pretty damn good!

So onwards to the next stage, (before round two edits arrive). This next stage firstly entails a change of title. My novel has been called The Swing Tree for a very long time, so when a change of title was flagged, it was a tad disappointing even though I’d always known it was a possibility. However, I totally understand and appreciate the publishers’ reasoning behind the need for the change. I won’t explain the whys and wherefores and give away too much about the story, but I quickly came around to the publishers favoured choice, No Small Shame. This title was ‘stolen’ (in their words) from one of my chapter titles and I now agree No Small Shame is quite catchy.

It’s wonderful to hear a new perspective and to have fresh eyes that know the market.

Which brings me to the next big but small change: my author name. I’ve often wondered when it came time to publish my adult titles, should I do so under Chris or Christine Bell. Back when I was first published, as a writer for children, it was considered better for me to publish as the ambiguous ‘Chris’, as boys (who were often my main characters too) were reluctant to read female authors. I’m not sure whether that’s still a thing in children’s publishing, but today it’s important and necessary to stand tall as a woman writer. Ventura Press, my publisher, are a feminist press and ‘love to champion female authors and female voices.’ They too thought it would be great to put Christine Bell on the cover. I’m totally happy and up for the change. I think it will translate better visually on a book cover too. I just hope I don’t ignore the speaker or think I’m in trouble when someone new talks to me in the writing world as, usually, I’ve only ever been called Christine when I’m in trouble. I answer to many things, Chris, Kitty, Chrissie, but Christine will be a new part of my journey From Hook to Book.

Since I don’t have a cover to reveal quite yet, I’ll share a few favourite pics from my recent trip instead.

Ps: OMG! Did you know you can walk on the rooftops of the Milan Duomo?

 

 

HNSA Melbourne Chapter Readings Night

With a debut novel coming out in a few months, it will soon be time to start spreading the word on my new novel. But recently, I was really honoured to be asked by the Historical Novel Society of Australasia Melbourne Chapter to be their featured reader at their July Readings night.

Held at the historic PMI Victorian History Library in Prahran, it was a delightful evening where I read an extended piece from my upcoming novel The Swing Tree. (News on a title change soon.)

It was very reassuring to have my piece so well received and the opportunity to gauge some audience reactions. I found myself absolutely loving question time and quite forgot to be nervous. It was a joy to share some of my on-the-ground research experience in Scotland and the background to my story with the enthusiastic audience.

The floor was then opened to interested participants to share a short reading from their own works-in-progress or a work of their choice. I thoroughly recommend these regular evenings as a fantastic opportunity to read your work aloud and to get some audience reaction. It’s not critiqued at all, just reading aloud to your peers.

At the conclusion of the formalities, everyone is invited to continue the discussions and evening over dinner at a nearby bistro. It’s a great networking and social opportunity too.

For me, it also just showed how much I love talking about this story.

 

(The next HNSA Melbourne Chapter readings evening will be held in September: https://tinyurl.com/y4h6xxak)

The Journey From Hook to Book

From Hook to Book – Yes, indeed!

Well almost! A book is on the way!!!

My adult historical novel, The Swing Tree, is to be published by Impact Press (an imprint of Ventura Press) in March 2020.

It’s been a big journey from hook to the book.

Several more years ago than I like to admit, I signed up for a Year of the Novel course through the then Victorian Writers Centre (now Writers Vic). I had an idea for a contemporary novel set in China, where I’d lived and worked for several months a couple of years before. The book was to be from an Australian expat teacher’s perspective and my first attempt at a novel since my Prof Writing course.

Around this same time, I was trying to put together a family tree and decided I should find out more about where my forebears came from and why. I never got further than one branch of the family, because…

Well, I’ll try to keep a long story brief. My great-grandparents originally came from Belfast in Ireland. My great-grandfather, John McConaghy, came home from the Boer War to a quiet house and a grieving wife. His three baby daughters all dead and buried from maladies to which many infants succumbed in the slums of the Falls Road. With no work to be had, in 1901, John and Mary, my great-grandmother, immigrated to Scotland to the Lanarkshire pit village of Bothwellhaugh to join John’s brothers in the Hamilton Palace Colliery. Though to the best of my knowledge, John had no prior experience mining coal. Within short time another babe was on the way – my grandmother, Alice. Two sisters followed. But in the interim another sister and brother were born and died within months of the dreaded gastroenteritis or bronchitis. Again the rate of infant mortality was extreme and somewhat inevitable as the family lived, at different times, in two of the poorest rows – Store Place and The Square. One room for the entire family with no indoor plumbing but plenty of mould and rising damp.

Not a fit environment to live and thrive and so in 1912 John answered the call of immigration posters from Australia promising sunshine, good jobs and cheap nominated passages.

My great-grandfather came out to Australia first on the SS Makarini accompanied by several other families from the village. Their destination – the new State Coal Mine in Wonthaggi. Six months later, on nominated passages, Mary and their three surviving daughters embarked on the SS Hawkes Bay out of Tilbury.

From the moment I walked the heritage trail at the Wonthaggi State Coal Mine, touched the old miners’ tokens, viewed the old film footage and faded photographs, it sounds a bit soft to say, but I heard a whisper. There’s a story here. There’s a story here. There’s a story here. And it would not be quieted. Not even once back in our 21st century automobile with the radio blaring on the journey home.

Over the following weeks, instead of working on my new novel, as I should’ve been doing for my course, I was web surfing and taking steam ship voyages in tiny cabins by candescent lighting and discovering everything I could about pit villages in Scotland. Bothwellhaugh, a tiny dot on the map in 1912 when my family left, had long since been demolished as had so many pit villages when the mines closed and the tenement rows made way for modern housing, or in Bothwellhaugh’s case a new country park. The more I read and discovered, the more the life entranced me. (Probably because I didn’t have to live it.) Then, in the quiet of my research, Mary showed up. My novel’s protagonist – a young woman on the brink of immigrating too – oddly enough.

My real-life family flew under the radar, had no grand story to tell. They left no mark on history, no diaries or letters or place to begin. Except in my imagination. But it seemed Mary had a life and a plan of her own and her story began to grow. But how could I give her breath… I was halfway through my YOTN course and faced with a dilemma. Or so I thought. Until the night I grumped over dinner that I really wanted to be writing Mary’s story and researching Wonthaggi, Bothwellhaugh and steamship voyages, and not the novel I’d started. Then my husband asked matter-of-factly, ‘Why don’t you just write the novel you want to write. It’s your choice, isn’t it?’

Well, yes. It was my choice. And ironic, since the novel growing in my mind was so much about choices and how one choice can change a life forever. In that moment I made mine.

I switched projects and Mary’s story began in earnest. As did the work of learning to write an historical novel. A work of length when, previously, I’d written mostly short works of fiction for children and one contemporary YA novel.

As I fell in love with my characters, the era and the history, it came to me that I’d loved and read historical fiction my whole life. So really it was a no-brainer to write it. It only surprised me that I hadn’t thought of it before!

There was a lengthy period of time – mid-journey – where I set the manuscript aside to write another book while I worked out what to do with what had become a very unwieldy work-in-progress. Neither a full-on literary novel, nor a commercial novel, it crossed the genres of both. Young protagonist with adult problems! Which way to proceed? But that’s a whole other story!

I’m just delighted that the publisher loves the story too and I can’t wait to share the physical book with everyone next March. But first, there’s more rounds of editing and lots of exciting publishing things ahead like cover and book design, and reveals, marketing and a launch to plan.

Stay tuned…

ps: From the length of this blog, you can understand why the book took so long!

 

Small disclaimer: The photo above of the tenement rows in Bothwellhaugh is taken many years later than my story is set, but offers a glimpse of the life.

The Writer is In!

Late last year I fell off the horse – figuratively speaking! Of course! After months of head down, unrelenting focus on trying to get down the first draft of my WIP, one day in early November, I suffered a complete crisis of confidence over where my story was going. And if I could write at all. Add in two very disappointing rejections that week, a day apart, and I quite literally melted down.

In all the years I’ve been writing, I’ve tried to approach it professionally – as a job. Even through the most gutting knock backs, after manuscripts have gone to acquisitions meetings and not made it through, I’ve given myself the standard 24 hours to mourn and cry, but the next day I’d be back on the proverbial horse and back at my desk.

Being a Friday, I figured, a couple of wines and a good cry and come Monday I’d be back at my desk as always. But even as I walked out my office door, I sensed something was different this time. It was as if a switch had flicked in my brain. I can’t do this. Do I even want to do this anymore? I was sick to my stomach in fear this might not just herald a break.

Over the coming days, I couldn’t even step into my office. I’d lost my nerve, my mojo, and, it seemed, my will to write. What the hell was wrong with me? The question nagged again, did I even want to write? It’s too hard. It hurts. Who and what am I writing for?

It took time before I could face a good hard think about writing and my practice. But when I did, I realised that somewhere, somehow, my determination to get words down had become an obsession. I’d barely noticed in the passing months that I’d stopped exercising and going to the swimming pool (too busy), or working in my garden (too wet/too cold), or even taking time out for friends (I’d catch up as soon as my draft was done). Even playtime and training sessions with our precious puppy had become snatched moments between writing. Poor baby!

I came to the sad realisation too that I had no hobbies, nothing that was not connected to writing. How and when did that happen? I’d been given a beautiful mirrorless camera the preceding Christmas and it had scarcely been out of its bag.

I have a little easel (pictured above) on a shelf in my office bookcase with the sign, “The Writer is In”. As a joke, when I made it, I made one for the reverse side, “The Writer is Out.” (I’d never turned it around.) The week after my meltdown, I spotted it as I left my office, after being unable to open my manuscript for the umpteenth time. I cried as I turned the sign around, wondering if the writer would ever be in again? Again, the question: Did I even want to write anymore?

But when someone near and dear innocently asked, what do you want to do then? ‘WRITE!’ came my savage reply. ‘It’s who I am. What I do. All I want to do!’ (Despite the voice screaming in my head, ‘I just don’t know if I can do it anymore.’)

Turns out, there is more to life than just writing. In these past few weeks, I’ve undertaken a CAE Intensive Photography Course, worked prodigiously in my garden, read some great books – for pure enjoyment, romped, played and generally hung out with a very cute, small, white dog, as well as with some human friends. I’ve given my house a mini-makeover and enjoyed a lovely Christmas and holiday break with my family. Plus I’ve pretty well planned and booked an overseas trip for us later in the year. Plus, as of this week, I’m back in the pool.

I’m also booked to do a 5-day writing masterclass in February and I’m sincerely looking forward to it (more on that another day) and I’ve finally found some words (if only to write this blog post – it’s a start!)

Oh, and I nearly forgot, Santa brought me a most special present. I’ve always, always, wanted to learn to play the piano and shortly before Christmas I took the time to ask the question, was it possible to teach an older dog such a trick. Turns out, Yes! It is. In the weeks since, I’ve been practising with an app, learned to play a couple of songs, and, hooray, hooray, today I had my very first piano lesson!

I also reread my WIP and turns out, there is a story there. One I really want to write. So it seems, albeit it tentatively, the writer/photographer/piano player/gardener/dog buddy is IN.

Month of Writing Wrap

My Month of Writing is over. Yay! I achieved my goal of adding 25,000-words to my manuscript and met my deadline last Friday 31st August at 7.29pm. (Then I collapsed with exhaustion! And wine!)

I only exceeded my goal by a miniscule 93 words but I’m really pleased with the new scenes and chapters I’ve written and the considerable development of the storyline. It’s not all sparkling prose that’s for sure, but the bones are there. (Though, I’m not sure that the final 1000-words written on Friday will stay or go. I haven’t been back yet to read them over and fear they may have turned into waffly exposition in order to hit the 55,000 mark by my self-imposed deadline.)

So was it a good approach or a positive way to write for me?

Yes and no! Yes: it worked on lots of levels: achieved word count, added scenes, developed storyline. No, it’s not a way I’d want to write all the time. I really missed taking time to go back and edit and rework scenes as I went, but I realised early-on that if I wanted to hit my word count goal, I had to just write and worry if it was all working later.

The real positive is that the new scenes capture the essence of what I want to say and where I want the story to go. And now they’re written I have something to work on. Another bonus is that these latest 25,000-words have really progressed the plot and inspired an important sub-plot in the story.

I don’t think that I could ever do NaNoWriMo with its word count goal of 50,000 words. I started my month of writing with a strong plan for the different scenes that I wanted to write in the belief that I should be able to just sit down first thing each morning and crack on with the writing. I can actually write quite quickly when I’m in scene but, regardless of all my planning and good intentions, it still took me half the day to get started – as is usual for me. Turns out I still need to dream, think, imagine my way into the writing. The great thing though is that by having my Month of Writing goal and deadline, I did just crack on with the writing before the end of the day and it was incredibly satisfying to watch that story/word count grow daily. (Or almost daily.)

So, the stats:

Achieved:

  • 13 new scenes
  • 25,093 words
  • 1 new subplot
  • belief and confidence this story is worth writing

Pros:

  • inspiration to get words down
  • permission to write regardless of quality (equally a con)
  • inspired serious plotting
  • enforced the writing of some ‘skipped’ scenes
  • enabled strong character development through intense writing
  • proved the idea has legs (even if still a spindly, wobbly first draft)

Cons:

  • permission to write regardless of quality (equally a pro)
  • gave licence to waffle
  • limited scope for editing of completed scenes (as I prefer to do as I go)

So now to review the 55,000-words to date, give in to the urge to edit and then reset my writing goal. It just won’t be quite so intense next time!

 

 

Month of Writing

Today I begin a “Month of Writing”. A writing retreat if you like with a fixed deadline and word count aim.

But it’s all self-imposed and self-inflicted! And necessary. Of course I would love to go off on a fully-fledged writing retreat in some idyllic setting, meals laid on and nothing to interrupt the writing flow but my own thoughts. But with a young puppy in the house and planning an overseas trip next year, I can’t afford either the time away or the financial outlay.

So I’ve devised a plan: I’m keeping my August calendar as clear as I can. I’ve set a 9 am daily start, so I’d better type faster now. I’ve set myself a daily word count aim of 1000-words. I’ve multiple scenes mapped out and some exciting aspects of my novel to explore. I know where it’s all heading and the only way to get there now is to write. I’ve also given myself permission to just write. Crap, if necessary. But words.

No, I don’t have to tell the world my plan (not that the world is reading my blog!), but I’m a person who thrives on accountability. This is my commitment to myself. So here I go – manuscript currently at 30,200-words. End of month aim 55,0000-words. I’m leaving myself a little leeway, because life always interrupts. My plan is to bar the door against all but the most important of interruptions. See you on the 31st.

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