Saturday, 24 February 2018

Let’s talk about reviews - and in particular Amazon reviews.

I love it when one of my books receives a 4 or 5* review. The world glows! The gloom that descends when there is a non favourable review is all consuming and depressing for a while until I pull myself together and remember not everyone is going to like what I write and maybe the reviewer had a valid criticism. And then I get on writing the next book and telling myself a mix of stars is a good sign in readers eyes. It proves that more people other than just your mates have read the book.

There’s been a lot of talk on various FB groups this week about a certain reviewer leaving one star reviews with the words ‘Didn’t read’ against a lot of books on Amazon. But, aside from the fact that it is quite simply not a review at all, the one star automatically lowers the author’s overall rating, which is what has angered many authors and caused them to react. But should authors react to these type of reviews? Isn’t it a question of the best policy is to read, sigh and ignore? A difficult question to answer.

For authors dependent on Amazon reviews to sell books it’s all turned into a bit of a lottery hasn’t it? Amazon’s policy of emailing customers within a week of them making a purchase of anything, asking them to review the item, seems to intimidate people into leaving a comment immediately. This way of garnering reviews simply doesn’t work for books. For example  ‘5* - arrived safely’ says more about the packaging and delivery service than it does about a book. So a failure as a review but it will give the author’s rating a boost - albeit unfairly. Some people also seem to fail to understand the 1 - 5 star system. I’ve seen glowing reviews in the past accompanied by a 1* because the reviewer has the mistaken belief that it’s the highest ranking and not the lowest. And, once again, the author's rating on Amazon suffers.

I'm not sure whether it’s an urban myth or not but apparently Amazon like to see at least 20 reviews for a book before they start to feature it in various threads like ‘Recommended for you’ and ‘Customers who bought this item also bought’. What definitely isn’t an urban myth is the fact that Amazon will delete a 5* review if they believe there is a connection between the author and the reviewer - whilst leaving the '1* didn’t read' in place.

And in truth the majority of buyers/readers of books will never leave a review. Not because they didn’t love/hate the book but because it simply doesn’t occur to them, nor do they realise how important a review on Amazon has become for authors. Years ago popular fiction was rarely mentioned in the book review pages of newspapers, it was literary fiction all the way. Amazon has certainly changed that with their review system - even if it is a bit like the curate's egg!

Word of mouth has been proved time and time again to be the way to sell books but that is as difficult to kick start as getting people to leave reviews. So personally I'm going to stop worrying about the reviews, try to always write the best book I can, and carry on dreaming that one day one of my books will be the next big thing.

Do you look at the reviews before you buy a book? Or do you prefer to take recommendations from friends? Do you look at book blogs? Or simply buy if the blurb appeals? How do you decide?

Saturday, 17 February 2018

A Literary Weekend in Dublin

Last week was mid term break for Scottish schools – days to fill, in February, when the weather tends
not to be kind. What to do? We decided on a short trip to Dublin, Ireland, famous for both its warm hospitality (or craic) and excellent pint of Guinness, as well as for producing wonderful writers.

The Old Library

Trinity College,
Long Room
We began by exploring the popular tourist hotspots of Dublin Castle and Kilmainham Gaol, both steeped in Irish political and social history and well worth a visit. But I’d also made it my mission to learn more of Dublin’s great literary tradition, starting at its most famous seat of learning, TrinityCollege. With an outstanding set of writing alumni that includes Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels), Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest) and Bram Stoker (Dracula), Trinity College is home to the Old Library
Trinity College, Old Library
with its majestic Long Room, containing two tiers of oak bookcases which hold over 200,000 books. It was magnificent on such a jaw-dropping scale that I had to remind myself it was real and not some Disney mock-up or made for a scene of Harry Potter!

 The Book of Kells

But my key reason for visiting Trinity College was to see its main treasure, something I’d wished to view for a long time - the artistically inscribed Book of Kells. Dating from around AD 800, the Book of Kells is believed to have been completed by monks from the island of Iona in Scotland. The precision of the scribes as they recorded the four Gospels of the Bible shows their immense skill and dedication to their work. Following line after line of immaculate Latin script, I couldn’t help but reflect that as I type more and write less, my handwriting has deteriorated to a lazy scrawl. It’s time to up my game and start practicing with the calligraphy set my sons gave me for Christmas. Seeing the Book of Kells was more than worth the wait.

 Dublin Writers Museum

Dublin Writers Museum
Portrait Gallery
From there, it was on to the Dublin Writers Museum, situated in an 18th century townhouse refurbished by the Jameson family, of Irish whiskey fame, which houses a wealth of artefacts, such as letters and first editions, celebrating the lives and works of Irish writers, including four Nobel laureates, over the past three hundred years. Visiting room after room filled with memorabilia from the likes of Swift and Wilde, Yeats and Joyce, was both awe-inspiring and, as a writer, more than a little daunting. If you plan on visiting the Writers Museum make sure to take a trip upstairs to the stunning Writers Portrait Gallery, found in the ornate former drawing room with views across Parnell Square.

Walking with Famous Irish Writers

Oscar Wilde Sculpture
Dublin is a city that encourages walking and has even put together a writing trail which includes a visit to Oscar Wilde’s House, the Oscar Wilde Memorial Sculptures in the gardens opposite his childhood home off Merrion Square, as well as the James Joyce Centre and more. My good friend and writer, Rachelle Atalla, also recommended I visit Sweny’s Pharmacy, an oldie-world former pharmacy that sells second hand books and appears in Joyce’s Ulysses and where volunteers read from his work. When we visited, Ulysses was being read in French, and given my knowledge of French has gone much the same way as my handwriting, we didn’t linger long, but it was lovely to imagine we’d walked in Joyce’s footsteps, if only for a little while.
Sweny's Pharmacy
mentioned in Ulysses

Contemporary Female Irish Writers

 In preparation for my trip to Dublin and also since I've returned, I've been reading contemporary female Irish fiction writers. I have long been a fan of both Marian Keyes (my review of her latest release, The Break) and Cecelia Ahern (one of my Christmas reads was The Gift), but I was also lucky enough, last year, to hear the fabulous short fiction writer, Claire Keegan, give a reading at Aberdeen University (my review of Foster). Next on my to-be-read pile was The Hollow Heart by Adrienne Vaughan, editor of the Romantic Novelists’ Association magazine and author of the Heartfelt series. Vaughan’s latest The Summer at the Seahorse Hotel is out now.
Lastly, my current bedtime read is The Good Mother by Sinead Moriarty, recommended for those visiting Dublin, over on the Trip Fiction website. Ireland’s literary tradition is most definitely alive and well.

If you’re unable to sample the delights of Ireland for yourself then why not try the next best thing and read some of its brilliant fiction. I'd love if you'd join in the craic by sharing your favourites below …

Happy reading,


Saturday, 10 February 2018


This week is Valentine's Day. A day for romance, when gifts and cards are exchanged to declare one's love. For many, in this world of digital messaging, it may be one of the few times their feelings of love are expressed by the pen. The art of letter writing is fading fast and with it, dare I say, is the art of writing a love letter. Yet when a woman receives a love letter, written from the heart by the man she loves, it will mean more than any card or bunch of flowers bought on the way home from work.

Why? Because writing a love letter takes time, deep thought, is personal and unique. It opens a window to the writer's thoughts that he/she may find difficult to express in words. If written well and the feelings are returned, the recipient feels valued and connected on a deeper level than before.

Keely Chace gave her top tips for writing a love letter to him on the Hallmark website.

Make him feel it from the start.
ie My Darling …
Mention why you’re writing.
It might be an occasion like Valentine’s Day, but I just felt like telling you…is also a good reason.
Affirm him.
What do you like about him and/or what are you grateful for?
See the future.
What are you looking forward to together? Seeing him tonight? Still loving him when he’s 64?
Finish strong.
with an affectionate signing off such as All my love, Forever yours, Tenderly, Your loving wife…etc.

Her tips certainly give a template, although perhaps a love letter written from the heart is more genuine than one following a step by step guide.

What advice would a man give to a man? Tom Chiarella from Esquire says "A good love letter declares itself plainly, then illustrates particularly.... Let the example precede sentiment. .... Don't repeat yourself. Emotional declarations matter more if you make them one at a time, space them a little....Let her know that she is redefining your terms."

What elements do I think a love letter should have? For me a love letter holds more value when it is not in response to an earlier argument and therefore has no agenda. It should be written with care, thought and love, sharing heartfelt feelings of how much the recipient means to them. It should not be too long or too complicated, nor too brief.

I think we all have a love letter inside us, but perhaps not all of us are brave enough to expose our innermost feelings. If a full letter is too exposing, than perhaps a heartfelt signing off could be a good place to start. Despite leading the country in the second world war, Winston Churchill still felt able to sign his letters to his wife in the most affectionate terms.

"Sweet cat—I kiss your vision as it rises before my mind. Your dear heart throbs often in my own. God bless you darling keep you safe & sound." 

One takes a risk when penning a love letter in this day and age. Love letters, written in solitude and given in confidence, can be shared on the internet within seconds. However, whenever I read one I only think how lucky the recipient is, to have someone love them as deeply as the person who penned the letter.

"I already love in you your beauty, but I am only beginning to love in you that which is eternal and ever previous – your heart, your soul. Beauty one could get to know and fall in love with in one hour and cease to love it as speedily; but the soul one must learn to know. Believe me, nothing on earth is given without labour, even love, the most beautiful and natural of feelings." 

Leo Tolstoy to Valeria Arsenev (November, 1856)

"…I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, .with all your undumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it. And yet I believe you’ll be sensible of a little gap. But you’d clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it should lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal.
So this letter is really just a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any more by giving myself away like this — But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defenses. And I don’t really resent it."

Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf

A well crafted love letter is special indeed, and even more so when it is written by the one you love. Should you receive one, cherish it and revisit it, for someone has been brave enough to open their hearts to you and, more importantly, feel you are worth the risk to do so.

Author of

Monday, 5 February 2018


Now then, I rarely post personal stuff in the ether ..... certainly not on Facebook or Twitter unless it's to urge people to buy my books or the magazines in which I have stories. But this blog is, I think, different - albeit in the ether as the others. Writers can't just stop being writers because life gets in the way of things like deadlines and ideas that strike in the middle of the night. But the thing is, my husband hasn't been well for some time and just before Christmas he took an alarming turn for the worse. He was unable to eat, suffered massive weight loss, and everything that goes with those things took an alarming toll on him. A visit to our GP saw him whisked to hospital, but he was too weak to undergo an operation so he was drip-fed antibiotics and tube fed nourishing things until he built up strength which, mercifully he did, and was able to have the operation he needed.
Now then, in the middle of all this worry, and twice-daily drives to the hospital and back, and hours by his bedside, my copy edits arrived from my new publisher. To mention all the above or not? I decided not. I devised a plan. I would get up uber-early (who can sleep soundly with a poorly loved one in hospital anyway?)and do the edits then. I had a week in which to do them. I did. Just. And then said publisher asked for a synopsis for my next novel, also in a week. I said that would be a push and could I have a bit longer .... I could. Phew! And then a magazine editor wanted some tweaks to a quite long short story .... contradiction in terms but writers will see that as a normal statement. Could she have it back in 48 hours .... she could and she did. Phew!
And then there was the thorny question of whether or not to take our grandchildren in to see their granddad. They spend a lot of time with us and were missing him and asking for him. Would they be upset by drips and machines buzzing at random intervals and granddad not being able to play hide and seek with them? In the event they seemed to be far more interested in the control panel at the end of granddad's bed that raised and lowered the head rest and various other things than they were in the poor old boy in it. And the free hot chocolate in the day room was pronounced far superior to anything they'd ever had in a cafe anywhere although six-year-old Emily grumbled about the lack of mini-marshmallows!
And talking of hot drinks .... a young Polish man - a patient in the bed opposite my husband's - was going into the day room to get himself a drink and stopped to ask me if he could get me tea, or coffee, or hot chocolate. And that's when another short story idea came to me. Right there in the most inappropriate of places and I did get a pang of guilt, but it's what writers do - we can't help it. I'm sure other writers will understand. P.S. My husband is now home, I'm pleased to be able to say.