The Boy Made of Snow by Chloe Mayer

An enchanting and devastating book that will make your throat seize up with dread. There’s a German POW working in the woods in rural Kent during World War Two – cutting down trees for fuel for the villagers. Friendly and with something of the forbidden about him, he’s an intriguing addition to the village where nine-year-old Daniel and his repressed mother Annabel don’t quite fit in. But just what does Hans want from the unsuspecting pair?

The story doesn’t pick up pace until about 80 pages in, but it is well worth the wait because what unfolds next is so compelling, mind-blowing even, that you won’t be able to turn the pages fast enough. Tension builds as it becomes increasingly likely that Annabel and Daniel’s fragile lives are about to shatter into pieces, but not in any of the ways that you might expect. Twisty and beautifully written, with intelligent observations – take note of the Home Guard with their jobsworthy puffed-up pride for instance – The Boy Made of Snow is a remarkable read. And since this is Mayer’s debut, it is just the beginning.

 

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Why I Abandoned The Book I Was Writing – interview in today’s The Gloss Magazine

I am so thrilled to feature in today’s The Gloss Magazine interviewed by the wonderful Sophie Grenham. I’m talking jogging (aka fast walking), what it’s like to have to abandon a book because another author’s already written it, and what the defining moment was that made me pick up my pen and write The Maid’s Room.

Sophie says: ‘Fiona’s refreshing and respectful prose gives voice to a nation of people that are often seen and not heard, and shines a light on a system that should have been challenged long ago. In preparation for her novel, she interviewed many women working as maids, who opened up to her about their treatment.’

Click here to read the rest of the interview.

Novel Competitions – Do You Have The X-Factor?

Huge congratulations to everyone who has been longlisted in the Blue Pencil First Novel Award. What a huge privilege it is to have read your work – and I don’t just mean the work that has gone through to the next round. I have marvelled over inventive story ideas and underlined beautiful sentences; I have fallen in love with many of your characters. It was incredibly hard to choose just 25 entries for the longlist because the standard was so high.

One of my Twitter followers has asked me what it was that gave the 25 that X-Factor. The answer is a strong voice – that quality that makes writing great, that stamps it into your memory so that you think about the characters long after you finish reading the pages. I’ve come across voices that are likeable, unlikeable, funny, bubbly and cross. It doesn’t matter what shape or form the voice takes as long as it is arresting and makes the reader want to spend time with it.

Liking a voice is incredibly subjective, but I prefer voices that show much more than they tell, that don’t explain too much, that make me do some guess work. I adore a voice that dishes out surprises.

I can’t wait to re-read the longlist again as we decide on the shortlist, then yippee – we get to read much longer excerpts to figure out who the winner will be. Good luck everyone, and a big thank you for letting me read your wonderful work.

Why I’m Doing a Twitter Detox

I’m on Twitter to find out about new, (and old) books, to shout about brilliant books and to connect with readers of my book (soon to be books, when The Swap is published in April 2019). I’ve made some great friends on Twitter, people I meet up with who can waffle on about books just as much as I do. And as someone who longs to work as part of a team again, Twitter has become the banter I miss out on while alone at my desk every day. It’s become my ‘fancy a cup of tea?’ my ‘did you see that thing on the tele the other night?’ My connection.

A couple of months ago, I went to an event by Matt Haig and he talked about how we sometimes scroll through social media as an avoidance tactic. And that’s just what I’ve been doing of late, giving a lot of attention to tweets instead of pouring words onto pages. I’ve reached for my phone rather than allowing my thoughts to gain momentum and start to bloom into new work.

Good work requires deep thought, not thought that’s constantly interrupted by reaching for a phone with a scratchy feeling in the veins – just one more hit then I’ll stop and concentrate.

So I’m switching off for a while. I’ve deleted Twitter from my phone for now. Let’s see how long I can last.

So here we are then, laptop screen – it’s just you and me and the tea. Make mine a strong one.

 

(Holding pic by David Travis, Unsplash)

Review of The Maid’s Room by Fiona Mitchell

This lovely review of The Maid’s Room has made my Tuesday. A massive thank you to Pam, and to everyone who has bought my book and reviewed it. I really appreciate it.

Pamreader

I’ve been watching Fiona Mitchell’s progression from journalist to novelist with the-maids-roominterest and was delighted when she announced that she had landed a book deal with Hodder to publish The Maid’s Room.

Mitchell has always written with empathy and insight, two skills that are evident in this novel about the plight of Philippino maids in Singapore. The story begins powerfully, with a description of the standard concrete room that passes for maid’s accommodation. A small airless space with a mattress on the floor and laundry equipment lining the walls.

Jules and David are a married couple who’ve recently moved to Singapore and they’re invited to a party hosted by a brittle mother of two called Amber. Mitchell captures the soulless nature of the experience for Jules by vividly describing the hard contours of the environment and people she meets. There’s a distinct lack of warmth that separates Jules from everyone…

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How To Deal With An Author Publishing A Novel Similar to Yours

There I was beavering away on book three when I discovered that a well-known author might be about to publish a novel with the same central concept as mine. I had logged onto the early reviews and a reader had mentioned the words, ‘a mother with a secret.’ Oh, Christ, I thought, and so began my two-day long endurance until the book came out.

I bought it and read in a frenzy that ripped the pages and wrecked the spine. Huh – take that, stupid book! Reader, it was all I could do not to stamp on the thing, because what stared up at me was virtually the same book as mine. It even had an almost identical opening scene.

It felt as if there was a brick in my stomach. I was 50,000 words into my first draft, for goodness sake. It was possibly one of the worst first drafts I’d ever written, but still. . .

I’ve got the last three chapters of the published-by-another-author book to go, but in truth I can’t bear to read anymore.

Are there any truly original ideas anymore anyway? Isn’t everything just a pastiche of what’s gone before? I continued on this spiral of unanswerable questions that might have been snatched from my three pretentious years as an English Literature undergraduate. And then, I rallied.

It wasn’t as if I was writing a psychological thriller like this author had, after all. And my second half was truly different. Mine was funny in places, well, ahem – it would be eventually.

My writer friends helped persuade me that all would be okay. ‘You’re writing up-lit though,’ one said.

I plonked myself in front of the computer, determined to carry on. But all that fretting had provided a pause, and into it had fallen a chunky great question mark. Did I actually like this idea anymore? Did I really want to go on with it? I started doing some research – daring myself to come up with a new idea. I wasn’t sure I could. I read news pieces, features, true life stories. There was something brewing, I just didn’t know what yet.

A day later, I was in the middle of hoovering the stairs when an idea landed, and then another. Dots started to join in my head.

I wrote an outline and when I compared it to the already-done idea, I decided I liked my new one better.

Perhaps I’ll go back to my old idea one day (I especially liked my peripheral characters – sigh), but for now I’m moving on. I may not have 50,000 words anymore, but what I do have is a scruffy outline, a new story that I keep daydreaming about, oh and 1,600 words so far. I’m going to see where this new story takes me and hope very hard that nobody else gets there before I do, but you know what, even if they do, all will be well.

Click here for a survival guide to discovering your story idea has already been done. It helped me.

 

Holding Image by Ross Findon on Unsplash

What Does a Three-star Book Review Actually Mean?

I don’t dread reading reviews of my book as much as I thought I might before I got published. But then maybe that’s because The Maid’s Room is a few weeks into paperback publication. I know there are readers out there who love it (thank you, lovely readers – I appreciate all of you) and this makes the inevitable fact that some people don’t and won’t like my book easier to bear.

But there’s a kind of review that leaves me flat – the oh-so-beige three-star review.

According to Goodreads, the three-star review means, ‘liked it.’ Not a horrendous verdict then. But log onto the WHSmith website, and you’ll find three stars mean ‘average.’ On Wordery, a three is a mere ‘acceptable.’ Oh.

To many of us – readers and authors alike – Goodreads stars equate with school grades:

5 stars = A.

4 stars = B.

3 stars = C.

2 stars =D.

And 1 star = someone who’s very cross indeed.

If you look more closely at three-star reviews, you’ll notice that they’re sometimes attached to opinions that are polar opposites.

Rick from Petersfield might say, ‘I can’t believe the publisher has charged £7 for this muck,’ and then award three stars. While Sal from Worcester ‘liked it a lot’, such a lot in fact that she mentions the number 3.95 in her review, then lights it up with three stars only. Oh go on, Sal, couldn’t you have rounded up and given a four?

For me, a three is a book that I liked in places, but there were a few things that weren’t quite right about it. Maybe I couldn’t quite lose myself in the narrative and was always aware of the book in my hands and the words on the page.

But if a Goodreads three means, ‘liked it,’ perhaps it’s higher than a grade C. A B- possibly? And though the pushiest of parents might disagree, a B- isn’t too shabby at all.

I think I might have just made peace three stars. I felt a bit mean giving them out – but now I don’t feel quite so bad.

What does a three-star review mean to you, readers and writers?  I’d love to know.

Photo by Paul Bergmeir on Unsplash

 

How Friendship Helps You Write Books

A dear friend gave this canvas to me last week. It is a painting of the cover of my novel, The Maid’s Room. My friend, Paola, didn’t just pop down to Snappy Snaps and copy the cover onto a canvas, she took weeks to paint it, and what’s even more remarkable is that she’s never painted a canvas before.

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She watched YouTube videos on how to paint a canvas; she made regular visits to an art shop to match each of the cover’s colours; and she repainted parts numerous times to get the picture exactly right. It’s an extraordinary gift and a symbol of true friendship.

It was thanks to my friends that I carried on writing my first book, even when trying to get published seemed like a fool’s errand. My friends listened to me complain and snivel as rejection after rejection plopped into my email inbox. My friends made me laugh. They kept on regaling me with their own stories, and they made their way into my books, my friends – funny moments they shared, their burning questions about the state of the world, their interactions with people.

The Maid’s Room and my next book called The Swap, which is published in April next year, both ask the question, what is family? – if it’s broken, if it’s small, if it doesn’t exist at all. Sometimes people tilt their heads and look sorry for me when I tell them I don’t have any siblings – my daughter doesn’t either – but for me, friends are family. They’re the ones that connect, that get you, and they can inspire you to do all sorts of things you thought you might not be capable of.

So here’s to discovering talents you didn’t know you had, to art, and to books, and to friendship. Oh, and now seems like just the right time to stop faffing around and write the acknowledgements page for my next book.

5 Types Of Rejection Letters And What You Can Learn From Them

On submission? Then you’re either roller coasting upwards, or plummeting down; maybe though you’ve only just begun.

It still hurts to look at my fat folder of rejection letters, formerly known as ‘The Folder of Doom’, but I can’t bring myself to delete any of them. They’re badges of honour, aren’t they? Look at this pile, and yet still I carried on and on and . . . 

Unwelcome though these missives were, they did contain some upsides though. Honest. Here’s what:

1. The Encouraging Rejection Letter

‘You write vividly, well.’ This was my first ever rejection letter dated 21 January 2013. It was for a novel called Out of The Cupboard – which was a pretentious precursor to The Maid’s Room. If an agent was bothering to be complimentary, then perhaps I was onto something, I thought. I chose to ignore every iota of advice that letter contained – ‘There are too many characters to keep track of, and it’s taking too long to focus.’ I should have paused, thought deeply about what the agent was saying. Instead, I kept sending out the book regardless. Even if you don’t take all the advice an agent gives you, it’s probably worth taking note.

2. The Bog-Standard Rejection Letter

The standard letter where the agent’s assistant has typed your name over somebody else’s – ‘I’m going to pass’, ‘I didn’t fall in love’ – will have you tutting/swearing/crying into a cushion depending on how many times you’ve received such a response. Well, grind my ego under the sole of your sandal, why don’t you? Know this: there may well be a next time. Several of these bog-standard replies turned into requests for a full when I sent the agents a book that was more evolved than my first offering.

3. The Request for a Full (Followed by a No-Thanks) Letter

This will get your excited hands shaking over your keyboard, adding superfluous commas everywhere, and doing frenzied spell checks. It’s a moment to be celebrated because this could be the one. And if it isn’t, all is not lost. This is an opportunity to get feedback. Every agent that requested a full from me (bar one – see point 4) has given me invaluable feedback which helped me to improve my writing.

4. The Absent Rejection Letter

This is when the agent requests your full manuscript then doesn’t even bother replying. Ever. It’s happened to a couple of writers I know, and it’s happened to me as well. It’s incredibly disappointing, then relief descends. I lose my keys on a daily basis; I shove my post into a pile and riffle through it, papers flying, when I need to find something. So does someone as disorganised as me want an agent who doesn’t even reply to represent me? No, I do not.

5. The Rip your Novel Apart Rejection Letter

One agent requested my whole book then listed the things she loathed about it. Her email might have mentioned the words ‘brilliant’ and ‘talent’, but it also said my ‘story was too bleak’ and that one of my characters was ‘too wet’. It was my face that was wet after reading that. And after I mopped up my tears, I peppered the air with swear words. It was my lowest point, but it was also a turning point because it was then that I decided to set that novel aside. I took my central idea and wrote a new novel, the one that eventually landed me an agent and a publishing deal.

If a rejection letter happens to land in your inbox today, chances are you’re going to feel horrible. But you’re in this for the long haul, so use anything these letters tell you to make your writing stronger. Get angry and use that anger to power you on.

16 Things I’ve Learned About Publishing Since Releasing My Debut Novel

My paperback has been out for a week, but the hardback edition of The Maid’s Room was published five months ago. Here’s what being published has taught me so far. . .

  1. The first bad review hurts – but your back gets broader.
  2. A five-star review is fabulous, a one-star review can be amusing, but oh god, a three-star review. . . I prefer extreme reactions.
  3. Being published is not going to imbue you with the confidence you imagine when you’re still struggling to get representation – there’s a new list of things to worry about.
  4. You know all that gushing gratitude towards literary agents in authors’ acknowledgements, well, I concur. Your agent is your guardian angel, the font of truth, the person who puts their arm around you when you’re wobbling.
  5. Before your first book is published, it’s a good idea to have written the first draft of your second book. I’m not sure I would have had the head space to write book 2 with all the debut fanfare.
  6. There are some blooming lovely writers out there.
  7. Don’t compare yourself to other writers. Not everyone gets a London Underground poster.
  8. The editor is right 99.9 per cent of the time.
  9. Your mood is inextricably linked with your Amazon ranking, even though you’ll be unable to make any sense of the algorithms at all.
  10. The first draft never gets any easier – no matter how many times you’ve faced the blank page.
  11. A complete stranger saying they’ve connected with your book? Nothing beats it; it’s the most exquisite gift of all.
  12. Spotting your book in a bookshop is exciting, but instantly you’ll be overcome with a desperate yearning for someone to buy it.
  13. Seeing your book in a library will make you want to dance in the aisle.
  14. You’ll think little old you can’t possibly stand up in front of a room full of people and make a speech or give a talk, but you’ll surprise yourself.
  15. Publishers sometimes send you books to read – it’s like opening a birthday present.
  16. Want to feel good? Get off social media and write.