Breaking Free From Your Genre

It’s always nice to see a writer breaking out of their usual genre. It gives readers a deeper insight into their talents. Marnie Riches is one such author. I first knew her as a children’s writer but she’s branched out from children’s fiction to take a much darker turn with her series of moody crime thrillers. She’s a recent winner at the Dead Good Reader Awards, receiving the Patricia Highsmith Award for most exotic location.

Here’s how she transformed from children’s author to crime writer.

The difficult birth of The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die by Marnie Riches

the-girl-who-wouldnt-dieI had been writing for children for some years when I started work on The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die. Always a fan of crime fiction, particularly the Scandi-noir of Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo, it had been the pinnacle of my writing aspirations to pen a complex crime thriller. But what sort of a shape would an adult thriller penned by a children’s author take?

Back in 2010, when New Adult was a newly mooted age-banding, I realised I wanted to write about a girl on the cusp of adulthood. I wasn’t ready to leave my stories in the hands of a solely middle-aged cast of misanthropes, perverts and murderers (although the series is inevitably littered with those). My heroine, George McKenzie is therefore twenty in the first book and an Erasmus student studying at Amsterdam university. I think her youth brings a freshness and derring-do to the genre, in the same way Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander did to the Millennium Trilogy.

It took me two years to get The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die just right. Rewrite, after rewrite, after rewrite. It grew to 150K words. I cut it back to just over 100K. In the interim, I penned the first six books of the HarperCollins’ Time-Hunters series for 7+ children, under a pseudonym, Chris Blake. When The Girl was polished to perfection, after my second agent had sadly retired, I went on the hunt for a new agent, knowing that “clicking” would be essential for a long term commitment. Within a few weeks, I had two offers of representation, and though both were from reputable agencies, I followed my gut instincts when I made my choice. My judgement was spot on.

the-girl-who-broke-the-rulesThe Girl Who Wouldn’t Die took a year for my agent to place – the enthusiasm from my publisher Avon (HarperCollins’ commercial imprint) was there immediately following submission, but the imprint had to undergo a lengthy period of restructuring and was not initially in a position to offer. We waited for them, though, and with hindsight, Avon, which publishes great women’s fiction and crime, was always the right home for my series. Now, I’m beginning to see that patience and belief pay off. My debut made it to the top of the Kindle free chart within days and is now climbing quickly in Kindle paid. With The Girl Who Broke the Rules out in August 2015 and The Girl Who Walked in the Shadows coming in late November, I’m optimistic that the series will have won a loyal following by the end of 2015. But the buzz wouldn’t be there without the support of fellow authors, SCBWI, reviewers, book bloggers and friends. Building your supportive network is essential whether you self-publish or are traditionally published like me.

No doubt, being published can be a fraught and emotional rollercoaster ride, but it’s one worth taking. The highs are bloody awesome! It’s the best job in the world. So, if you’re an aspiring author, my advice is to keep writing, aim for the stars, surround yourself with supportive allies and never give up!

About the Author

marnie-richesMarnie Riches grew up on a rough estate in Manchester, aptly within sight of the dreaming spires of Strangeways prison. She swapped those for the spires of Cambridge University, gaining a Masters degree in Modern & Medieval Dutch and German. She has been a punk, a trainee rock star, a pretend artist, a property developer and professional fundraiser. In her spare time, she likes to run, renovate houses and paint. Oh, and drinking. She likes a drink. And eating. She likes that too. Especially in exotic destinations.

Having authored the first six books of HarperCollins Children’s Time-Hunters series, her George McKenzie crime thrillers for adults were inspired, in part, by her own youth and time spent in The Netherlands as a student. She also writes contemporary women’s fiction.

Valuable Advice from Celebrated Author Cathy Cassidy

Today I’m celebrating my 100th post and, doing things in style, I’m extremely pleased to welcome Cathy Cassidy to the blog. Author of the Chocolate Box Girls series and three times winner of the Queen of Teen award, Cathy has kindly offered some valuable advice on how to keep your writing fresh when creating multiple-character books.

Saying Goodbye to the Chocolate Box Girls…

Cathy cassidy book cover

When I started writing the Chocolate Box Girls series a few years ago, I had no clue just how attached to those characters I would become. The bohemian blended family who were a kind of ideal ‘dream family’ for me became so real that I just didn’t want to let them go, but Fortune Cookie, book six, out June 3rd, will be the series finale… all good things come to an end, and it was time for me to step back, move on.

The Chocolate Box Girls series feels very personal to me; each of the sisters has a particular character trait of my own at the heart of their personalities. Cherry is the outsider, the story-maker who carries a lot of sadness from her past; Skye is a dreamer who loves vintage and history; Summer is a perfectionist who pushes herself hard – too hard, sometimes; Coco is eccentric, animal mad and wants to change the world; and Honey is a drama queen who feels things too strongly and often messes up.

I can see myself in each of those characters and I deliberately planned the series to give each girl a chance to tell her own story… that kept the whole thing fresh for me, as one of the things I love most about writing is being able to step into the shoes of a new character, a new narrator. I love that you can find a whole lot more about what makes each character tick by reading their book!

Of course, although the Tanberry-Costello girls may appear to be the perfect family, they’re a very long way from that. Each girl has her own worries, problems and challenges to face, and that makes their stories very real. Trying to find a satisfying ending to the series meant    leaving each sister perhaps not with a happy ending as such, but certainly the possibility of one… and finding a way to pull them together at last into the unshakeable family unit they have worked so hard to be.

Right from the outset, I had planned the series and made a story arc to take the overall story forward; I had never written a big series before, and although I don’t normally plan too much on paper, I didn’t want to mess up or get things wrong. I had notebooks stuffed with sketches, character notes, background details; I had a moodboard crammed with pictures, postcards, clippings. I knew what was going to happen. And then, out of nowhere, in the middle of writing book five, something unexpected happened. The book that should have been the last in the series, Sweet Honey, turned out to be the penultimate one, because Honey unearths a huge family secret that has the power to change everything.

It wasn’t in my notebooks, it wasn’t on my moodboard… it wasn’t in any synopsis or plan, but once the idea surfaced I knew it was absolutely the only way to go, and the perfect way to end to the series. Fortune Cookie is told by a brand new character, a half-brother called Jake Cooke, and because he is part of the family and yet not part of it at all, he was the perfect character to tell the very last installment.

Cathy Cassidy Chocolate Box SecretsAlong the way, I fell in love with the Tanberry-Costello family. I wrote a World Book Day short, Bittersweet, from the viewpoint of one of the boy characters, and then four e-book shorts also narrated by minor characters. I even put together a craft/style/recipe book called Chocolate Box Secrets, also out June 3rd,a non-fiction book to help arty, creative readers to grab themselves some Tanglewood cool… because I wanted to hang on a little longer to that magical fantasy world. But in the end, you have to let go, and when Fortune Cookie was finished I felt exhausted, sad, lost… but satisfied, too.

It was a little like seeing six of your children leave home to seek their fortunes, all on the same day. I will miss the Chocolate Box Girls, but I’m very glad to have known them.

About the Author

Cathy Cassidy

Cathy Cassidy is a British author of young adult fiction. She was born in Coventry, but now lives in London. She has written 23 books and been the agony aunt for Shout, a teen girl magazine. She has also written the Daisy Star series of books for younger readers.

Want to Write a Masterpiece? Here’s Some Advice from Writing Mentor Jennie Nash

I haven’t been very proactive on the blog lately, life has been getting in the way. It has a habit of getting in the way of my novel writing too. So I was very glad when Jennie Nash emailed me with some wonderful advice to help get me back on the Write path (excuse the pun). She’s also offering a free trial to This Craft Called Writing readers. Here’s what she has to say:

I’m a book coach who specializes is helping people who are serious about getting their books published, and one of the first things I do with new clients is ask them to fill out a Q&A. I ask, among other things, what is giving the writer joy and what is causing frustration. The answers about joy vary wildly from writer to writer. Some people love research and creating worlds, others love moving words around the page like a puzzle, and still others love the solitude of devoting themselves to their passion. What causes frustration, however, is almost always exactly the same two things: procrastination and doubt. As we head into the New Year, I thought I would share some strategies I’ve found that are effective for dealing with both.

The problem of procrastination.

One of the realities of being a writer is that writing is done alone in a room. There is no way to get around that fact – well, except for coffee shops, but even then, it is still you sitting there, alone with your thoughts. It is you, sitting there, knowing that there are dishes to be done, dinner to be made, the demands of a job, the responsibilities of a family, the stuff of life. Every moment you write is a moment you aren’t doing something you are “supposed to do.” It’s so easy to put off writing and chose more pressing concerns, because no asked you to write. And so you put off writing one day, then two, then a week, then a month until you are just someone who merely talks about wanting to write rather than someone who actually does it.

Accountability is a powerful antidote to procrastination.

One of the reasons writers under contract tend to finish their books is because they have an editor who is waiting for the manuscript, and deadlines are fantastic motivators. Until you get to that point in your career, it can be enormously helpful to develop some other method of accountability. This could be a friend, a writers’ group, a co-worker who is also secretly writing a novel, a paid editor, or a writing coach. Make a plan for when you will turn in your work, then put it in your calendar and consider it a binding a promise. Give the person permission to ask for your pages if you don’t turn them in – to nag you, to push you – and give yourself permission to take the work as seriously as anything else in your life. Accountability breeds action, and action defeats procrastination.

The problem of doubt.

Doubt eats at every writer, no matter how accomplished, no matter how seasoned, no matter how famous. It’s a central part of the creative process, and it’s not going to go away. It’s just not. You will wonder if your idea is any good, if you are worthy to speak your voice, if anyone will eventually care, and you will wonder if you should start your story on Page 9 or Page 39, if you should have gone with a first person narrator, if that scene you wrote packs the emotional punch you thought it did. Even if you hit the jackpot and write a book people adore, doubt will find you. You will wonder if it was a fluke and whether or not you can do it again.

Specific, detailed feedback is a powerful antidote to doubt.

Instead of free-form worry about your work, arm yourself with knowledge. You can start that process by simply reading the work of writers you admire, and studying how they did it. Are your scene endings that strong? Are your character descriptions that powerful? Are your character motivations that clear?

You can continue that discernment process by taking classes and workshop, or by following blogs that teach you how to build your writing muscle and your writing skills.

A big step for any writer is to seek feedback from the outside world. Try submitting work for review at writing conferences. It’s a one-off fairly low risk way to test your work. Make sure you really listen to what the editor is saying. If you get a lukewarm response, ask for one thing you can work on to improve your work. If you get an enthusiastic response, a bit of encouragement, or an invitation to submit, ask the editor to articulate exactly what they are responding to in your work.

I’m obviously biased, but I believe one of the best forms of feedback comes from a trained editor or book coach. Working with a coach for even a short period of time can help you learn exactly where your writing is strong, and where it is weak. You can gain a lot of knowledge in a short period of time – which not only improves your work, but helps to eradicate doubt. Instead of wondering about your work in vague and unproductive ways, you know. And if the news is not good, at least you know what to fix so you can get back to the joy of writing.

Jennie Nash is the creator of the Author Accelerator, a weekly accountability and feedback program designed to help writers complete a rough draft of their book in six months. She is offering a free weekly trial to all readers of This Craft Called Writing. Learn more at

Breaking into New Fiction Markets: Livi Michael Shares Her Experience

Livi Michael is an established writer of children’s fiction. I first came across her work when I read, Frank and the Black Hamster of Narkiz, which was on my reading list for Manchester Metropolitan University’s Writing for Children MA.

However, as her post below shows, being a children’s author wasn’t much help when it came to producing adult fiction. Here’s what she has to say about her writing experience:

Starting Again

What do you do when you’ve been out of one field of writing (adult fiction) for a long time and are trying to get back in? This was my situation, when starting to write Succession. For ten years I’d been publishing children’s books. I knew virtually no one in the field of adult fiction, and publishing categories are inflexible – it really isn’t easy to move from one to the other.

It felt a lot like starting again, from scratch.

I started to write Succession in April 2007.

Succession 1200

I was full of doubts. Not just about the publishing world, but about myself as a writer. These doubts were so intense that at first I could only get myself to write a book at all by promising myself that no one would ever read it…

All I had in my favour was that I loved, genuinely and passionately loved the subject of my research; the period of bloody civil war now known as the Wars of the Roses. And Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII. She had married three times by the age of 14, had her only child at the age of 13 and lived through the reigns of six kings. In her lifetime England moved from medieval feudalism to a recognisably modern society. So I had plenty to work on. And the famous advice of Dorothea Brande, which was to write first thing every morning as soon as I woke up.

I wrote the first two drafts in bed.

I was so happy, every morning, to wake up and write some more of my book.

Gradually reality kicked in.

Three years into this project I realised I was going to have to do something about the mass of material. So I edited it down drastically, to just under 300,000 words.

Yes, I know.

But every time I’d thought ‘You’re mad – this is far too long!’ I reminded myself that I was not trying to please anyone else, I was writing this book just for me. And it felt good.

Still – far too long. But to be fair, it wasn’t much longer than Wolf Hall, say. And actually shorter than Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries or Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell. So I sent it to my agent.

Who hated it.

Very hard phone call.

Had to lie down.

When I’d recovered sufficiently I read the whole thing again.

I still liked it.

So I sent it to the very first editor I ever had, on the grounds that he might remember me. He did and was good enough to read it. But not accept it. So I had to take this further rejection seriously. I was going to have to re-write my novel. This time bearing the reader in mind.

In the meantime I’d accepted a new job. I knew I would only have about three months before my new schedule kicked in and I would have no time at all.

I hit the keypad. Twelve to fourteen hours a day, seven days a week for fourteen weeks.

The new version was just under 100,000 words – actual novel length.

I sent it to a different agent. Two weeks into my new job I had a phone call. I had a new agent. Three weeks later I had a new publisher, Penguin. But the first thing my new editor said was that it was completely unpublishable as it was – I would have to re-write it!

Part of the problem was my use of extracts from actual medieval chronicles. I saw my text as illustrating or interpreting the originals – she saw it the other way round. She wanted more focus, whereas I had been aiming for a kind of tapestry effect.

Seven months later there was a new draft that made us both happy. Succession, the least likely of all my many literary projects to make it to publication, is out this month.

Now all I have to do is write the sequel…

About the Author

Livi Michael is the author of five novels for adults and eleven for children. These have won various awards including the Faber Prize and a Nestle Award. The Whispering Roadwas Book of the Month in Border’s, US, in May 2005. Her fifth novel for adults, Succession, will be published by Penguin in June 2014.

Perfecting Your Novel’s Opening Page: Advice from Novelist Emma Rea

I’m very pleased to welcome Emma Rea, author of Top Dog, who has some really helpful advice on perfecting your novel’s opening page with the help of a little x-ray vision.

Last Minute X-Ray Vision

Top_DogThe importance of the first page can’t be over-emphasised. For the rest of the novel, you can just tell your story. On the first page, however, you not only have to get your story off to a roaring start, but you have ‘admin’ jobs to do, by which I mean establishing things like age, setting, character – and you have to slip these in so the reader has the information they need without feeling as if they’ve been clobbered over the head with it. I rewrote the first chapter of Top Dog countless times, feeling as if I was coming at it from different angles, chipping away until I found the clearest, simplest start. Here’s an early version:

‘Dylan shoved his hands into his pockets and sauntered out of the Year Six classroom as if this was just another ordinary day. His blood was fizzing around his body like a bottle of shaken up coke with the lid half undone, but he ambled with deliberate slowness across the playground. While Matt and the others were yelling and jumping around Dylan fixed his eyes instead on the school gates, where his headmistress, a knobbly great stick insect disguised in old ladies’ clothes, stood guard. She was trilling goodbye to everyone in Year Six as they left, snatching at an unlucky girl with quick, spindly arms and fussing with her uniform.’

All I really needed to do in the first paragraph was establish Dylan’s age and his excitement about his plans for his summer holiday – and create curiosity in my young reader about what those plans might be. Nothing else. Someone asked me if the headmistress was going to feature again in the story, which of course she wasn’t. So my description of her was redundant. It didn’t matter how clever I thought it was, it had to go. So I tried again.

‘The last few seconds of the last minute of the very last day of Year 6 were ticking to an end with every step Dylan took. And the first summer holiday without a reading list and a threat that his life would not be worth living if he did not mutter his times tables hourly was rushing towards him. Dylan had had enough of school rules. He’d had enough of standing in line. He’d had more than enough of wearing a tie. Six free weeks stretched out in front of him and he knew exactly how he was going to use every minute of it.’

It was only at the final edit, days before the story went to print, that the first page came into clear focus. A strange, x-ray vision made it easy to see every extraneous word. Let me show you what the final edit produced:

‘The last few seconds of the last minute of the very last day of Year 6 were ticking to an end. With every step Dylan took, the first summer holiday free from times tables came rushing towards him.

Dylan had had enough of school rules.

He’d had enough of standing in line.

He’d had more than enough of wearing a tie. Six free weeks stretched out in front of him and he knew exactly how he was going to use every minute.’

Now we’re ready to get on with the story and the stick insect headmistress is free to go off and join another novel where she has a decent role to play.

About the Author


Top Dog, set over one summer in a Welsh village, is a story of intrigue and youthful determination among a group of boys. Emma Rea lives in London and Wales with her husband and three children. This is her first novel.

Click here to buy from Amazon

Twitter: @emmarea8

Want to Make Your Dialogue Sparkle?


Have you ever finished writing a scene of dialogue, re-read it and wondered why it doesn’t sparkle?

Below is an example of such a piece of dialogue:

A: ‘I knew the day I saw Maggie we were going to get married.’

B: ‘Oh, yes. Why was that?’

A: ‘She had the loveliest smile. It reminded me of my mother.’

B: ‘I never met your mother, did I?’

A: ‘No, she died of cancer the year before you started at the college.’

B: ‘I’m sorry. That must have been hard.’

A: ‘It was a difficult time, but I’m over it now. Life goes on, as they say.’

B: ‘I’m not sure I could feel the same. My parents and me are very close.’

A: ‘Maggie sometimes says I haven’t dealt with it yet, that I’m burying the pain, but I don’t think I am.’

B: ‘Sounds like she knows what she’s talking about.’

A: ‘Maybe? I’ve always respected her opinions. That’s why I promised her I’d go and see a counsellor about it. I don’t suppose you could recommend someone?’

So what’s wrong? It’s dialogue that shows the characters’ feelings, history, relationships, emotional tone. It even goes a little way towards driving the plot – character A’s impending visit to a counsellor. So why doesn’t the scene work? Why does it lack that special spark?

The answer is a simple one: dialogue needs conflict.

Give each character a goal they are trying to achieve within the scene, and then add something which stops them achieving it. In dialogue each character can become the other’s conflict.

Perhaps character B has spoken to A’s wife and is trying to recommend a counsellor to him. However character A wants to talk about more practical, work related matters. Maybe he’s worried about a new policy in HR which means he has to undergo an interview with the college psychiatrist.

Have a go re-writing the scene giving each character a definite goal which is somehow thwarted by the other during their conversation.

If you’ve found this post helpful I’d love to hear from you, or you might like to use the Share buttons below to tell others about it.

Picture c/o hovercraft doggy

Bad Beginnings from Sarah Naughton

I’m very happy to welcome Sarah Naughton back to the blog, as she has some useful insights into that difficult first page.

Bad Beginnings

I’ve been known to ditch a book after the first page. There are too many fabulous books in the world to waste any time at all on a dud. So, from an author’s point of view, you’ve got to get it bang-on straightaway. Hook people on the first page: better still the first paragraph: or best of all, the first line. Plenty of authors do entire workshops around first lines.

See if you can guess where these come from: ‘Call me Ishmael’: ‘It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen’: ‘There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it.’: ‘All children, except one, grow up.’: ‘If you are interested in stories with happy endings you would be better off reading some other book.’*

These are rightly famous openers. Some equally good books start off with less of a bang. Twilight’s Bella Swan describes the outfit she’s wearing to get on a plane. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe begins with a long description of the professor and his servants. You may need a slightly longer span of attention, but within a couple of lines the story’s revving up.

Sarah Naughton The Hanged Man Rises cover

When I first started writing the book that was to become The Hanged Man Rises it began like this:

‘The pie was the size of his fist and heavy as a brick. Now that the feeling had returned to his frozen fingers Titus had to juggle it from hand to hand while it cooled. On its lid was a golden bird, wings spread in flight. The bird’s breast had been pierced by the prongs of a fork and from these holes coiled threads of steam.’

It’s not a bad description. The problem is it doesn’t lead anywhere exciting. The pie doesn’t explode in his face. Maggots don’t come crawling out of it. It’s not snatched from his hand by a ferocious giant (yes, I write for children). Plus, whilst we learn a lot about the pie, we don’t learn much about Titus.

This is the way the actual book begins

‘The boy sat on the jetty, skimming oyster shells across the water. It was too choppy to get many bounces but occasionally a shell would strike the dredger, moored further out, with a satisfying clang. He didn’t even bother to prise open the next one before he threw it. The thought of slurping out its slick grey innards, still quivering, made him queasy.’

It’s still descriptive, but as the paragraph proceeds we find out that the boy is alone in the smog and night is falling, and then the Wigman comes for him…

Much more exciting. The pie got binned.

Some writing tips are very hard to follow (I’ve always found stripping my adjectives down whilst maintaining atmosphere to be particularly tricky), but I think this one’s fairly straightforward. Get into the action quickly. Reveal something about your character. Create a mood. That’s what will hook your reader (and of course, potential agents and commissioning editors).

Then all you have to do is keep them hooked for the next 300 pages. Simple.

*Moby Dick, 1984, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Peter Pan, The Bad Beginning

About the Author

SarahNaughton          BloodList-singlecover copy

The Hanged Man Rises, Sarah Naughton’s debut novel for young adults, was published by Simon and Schuster last February. Her second book, The Blood List is now out. She lives in London with her husband and two sons.