Category Archive: From the Author

What are the two questions all writers must answer?

May 8th, 2013

As a writer, I often get asked for my advice on press releases, brochures, social media and websites. In some ways, the principles of writing are the same, whether you’re writing a novel, non-fiction or an article for a magazine. They also work for websites, blogs, brochures or press releases.

There are two vital questions. Who are you writing for? What are you trying to say? Forget these two and you’re lost. The difference between novels and websites is whether you’re 100,000 words lost or just 350 words lost.

Some people may not agree with the idea that writing a novel has similarities with writing an article, press release, website or blog. But your book will be for a particular kind of reader. You may be writing for yourself and for people like you. Or you may be writing for sci-fi fanatics, Booker Prize judges, Richard and Judy or those who love happy endings.

If you’re writing an article or blog, you’re writing for the people who buy or subscribe to that magazine or newspaper. Just them. Nobody else. (And you’d better know who they are before you even suggest the article to the editor). If you’re writing a website, brochure or press release, you’re writing for people you hope will buy your product, support your charity or take your classes. It sounds obvious, but it’s so easy to forget.

I teach both creative and commercial writing. Beginner novelists often don’t want to think about who they are writing for, and there is some sense in that. Finish the first book. Then ask yourself who it is for. You may surprise yourself. You may have tried to write a crime novel and ended up with a literary work. Or the other way around. But if the answer is vague – eg ‘it’s for anyone’, think again. ‘Anyone’ is not very different from ‘no-one.’

And if you’re writing a press release, website, brochure or leaflet you really do have to know who you are writing for. Sometimes people don’t want to be too restrictive, because they ‘don’t want to put anyone off.’ Recently, a friend was handing out flyers for two different swimming classes. One flyer was very specific about the classes and levels it offered, the other said ‘fun in the water for everyone.’  Most people took the specific flyer. If they were handed ’fun for everyone’, they often gave it a puzzled glance, then handed it back or stuffed it into their bag without looking any further.

And that leads onto the other question. George Orwell’s advice to any writer who’s stuck was to ask yourself:  ’What are you trying to say?’ Books in the charts are all described in one sentence. Articles in newspapers and magazines are described in one headline on the cover. Brochures, leaflets, press releases and websites have to get their message across in a couple of sentences. Everyone who writes anything has to know exactly what they’re trying to say, even if they then take 100,000 words to say it.

If you want to know more, or you’re planning a website, press release, blog or flyer to promote your work, I’m teaching classes on Write To Sell at Creek Creative studios (1 Abbey Street, Faversham, Kent ME13 7BE). May 14th is Writing for the Internet (websites, blogs, social media) and May 21st is Writing for Print (brochures, press releases etc). Both from 6pm-8pm. Classes cost £35 for one or £60 for both. Book through Creek Creative on 01795 5353515 or




Posted in: From the Author by Nina Bell on May 8th, 2013

Authors and reading groups

February 15th, 2013

Talking to a reading group is one of the most delightful – and alarming – invitations an author can get. It’s much more intimate than addressing a festival, and they’ve all read the book. I was invited to a friend’s reading group after they read my Lovers & Liars . I asked them what they’d most like to know. The answers were:

1) How closely is the novel based on real life?

2) How do you write the sex scenes, and are you worried about your family/friends/ the postman reading them?

3) Who chooses the cover, and why did they choose this particular one?

These three questions are the ones that crop up the most often. Lovers & Liars was originally inspired by a friend’s divorce. She discovered that her husband had been lying to her throughout their marriage. However I soon went off on my own tack, interviewing psychologists, divorce lawyers and specialist domestic abuse counsellors, and reading expert books about domestic abuse.

I discovered that Tolstoy was wrong when he said that all happy families were the same but each unhappy family was different. Families affected by psychological abuse have countless similarities, which we discussed in the group. Abusers withhold money and affection, using them to control partners. They persuade partners to give up their jobs, wear different clothes or even have unnecessary operations. They undermine partners by criticising them, then saying ‘it’s only a joke’ or ‘I’m only trying to help you.’ There is often an air of physical menace, even if the abuser prides himself on ‘never hitting women’. Two women a week are killed by their partners. Some abusive partners will draw attention to these deaths over the breakfast table, saying ‘of course, the courts understand that a man can be pushed too far. She asked for it.’

Which brought us onto the sex scenes. Sexual abuse isn’t just about paedophilia. It’s about men – and women – belittling their partner’s performance in bed, telling them that their organs are undersized or baggy, making them have sex when they don’t want to, comparing them to previous partners, being unfaithful and then blaming them for everything. These are painful scenes to read, and painful to write. I researched them as I would any other scenes (talking to experts, victims and reading books), then metaphorically stuck my fingers in my ears, sang ‘la-la-la’, and wrote them, very relieved that my husband doesn’t read my novels (he’s strictly a non-fiction reader).

We also discussed how the issues in Lovers & Liars are reflected in today’s news. There is always a high profile case or a domestic murder where the defence is that the accused was under pressure or treated badly. Psychologists know that sometimes the person who is presenting themselves as a victim may actually be the abuser. It is a minefield. Abusers are very quick to blame someone else. They can be very convincing.

It’s hugely enjoyable for an author to talk about their book with a group who have read it, and are interested in how it was written. Book groups are generally very tactful about anything they don’t like, and generous about what they do like, so it was really heart-warming to hear Lovers & Liars described as ‘fast-paced’ and ‘compelling.’

Criticism often seems to be focussed on the covers, if they don’t think it reflects the book, and I know other authors find this too. What readers seem to dislike is when the cover seems to place the book in a genre, such as chicklit, that they don’t feel is appropriate. But, on the other hand, what is a good cover? Publishing companies spend a fortune trying to find out, and I try to explain the pressures they – and we, as authors – are under.

Finally, groups usually ask what books I myself enjoy reading. I always forget to prepare myself for this one, and find myself looking at the ceiling saying ‘Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel’ over and over again, interspersed with alot of ‘um’ and ‘er’, and, more worryingly, talking about Jack Reacher as a hero for today.

Have you got advice for talking to a reading group? And if you belong to one in Kent or South London, and would like me to talk, do contact me on Twitter (@ninabellbooks).

Posted in: From the Author by Nina Bell on February 15th, 2013

Three great crime and thriller cliches

February 5th, 2013

I love thrillers and crime. Maybe it’s because I don’t write in that genre. But I am getting increasingly frustrated by three cliches, which I see over and over again. Every crime or thriller writer seems to do them.

1) There is a murder. This is followed by a trail of other related murders, mostly because the murderer discovers that someone is getting close to the truth. We never, ever see this in real life. There are one-off murders, gang murders, serial murders, family murders and mass killings. But I have never, in all my years of reading the newspapers, read about a single reported case in real life where multiple deaths are a consequence of each other. Could we bring this plot device to an end now?

2) There is a burial scene. Over an open grave. Everyone is wearing black. People – the murderer, the detective, the person who knows the deadly secret and will therefore be murdered next (see above) – are darting or lurking amongst the gravestones. Enough already! Most people are cremated these days. Many graveyards will not accept new bodies, except in special circumstances. The only ‘ashes to ashes’ scene I have ever actually experienced personally was for a ‘natural woodland burial.’ Please, please, thriller and crime writers, could we have these scenes in crematoria, or in woodland burial grounds? No more Highgate cemetery and black top hats, unless it’s a historical novel.

3) A vulnerable person, often a woman or the heroine, is on the run. Or has received a threat. But she never closes her curtains! She may have changed her identity, run away from somewhere or someone, dyed her hair or covered her tracks in a million other ways, so how likely is it that she would go into a house, turn on all the lights and spend the evening with the curtains open? Real people have curtains. They always draw those curtains or pull down the blinds, especially if they are frightened, except in very deserted countryside. People on the run are particularly careful about such things. Aargh. No more fully lit windows, please. There must be another way.

Of course, crime and thriller is a fantasy genre. It’s not meant to be real. But does it have to be quite so unreal in these three respects? What do you think? Are there cliches that are driving you mad?

PS Oh, and that park bench. The one where you meet the man with the dodgy hat. You sit down next to him – in full view of everyone – and you both talk out of the sides of your mouths, then leave a newspaper for him to pick up. Anyone up to a mile away could spot the meeting and identify both parties. Could the security services please enlighten me here? Why a park bench? Why not a crowded bar, cafe or train where you could brush past anyone accidentally? Is this more about the director wanting some lovely scenic shots than it is about meeting someone discreetly where no-one can see?


Posted in: From the Author by Nina Bell on February 5th, 2013

Are you brave enough to write badly?

October 15th, 2012

Courage isn’t normally considered an important quality in writers. You don’t call us when your house is on fire, and most of us live in countries where we can write what we like without being executed. So I’ve always thought determination was probably the most important character quality for writers (let’s leave talent out of this for the time being, shall we? The world is heaving with talent).

I have a friend whose most common reason for disliking a book is the feeling that she ought to have written it. Implicit in this is her sense that she could – or should -have done it better, especially if it’s set in a world she knows. But when asked why she hasn’t written a novel, she said ‘I don’t want to write anything unless I know it’s going to be brilliant.’

But anyone who writes brilliantly starts off writing badly. Many ‘first novels’ never see the light of day, and are buried in drawers, festooned in rejection letters, even if their writers go on to be award-winners or best-sellers. Most writing never even gets that far. Writers don’t go from nought to sixty in a few months, they go from nought to one. Then two. Then back to nought again. Then up to five.

And even the most experienced and lauded writer will admit to writing badly sometimes, especially at the beginning of a book. A few years ago Jojo Moyes tweeted her desperation at not being able to get the beginning of a novel right, and a flock of other writers rushed to reassure her that they, too, found beginnings almost impossible. About eighteen months later, Moyes’ Me Before You hit the best-seller charts and received hundreds of excellent reviews.

And no book is ever actually perfect, so setting yourself a goal of perfection before you’ve even started means that failure, at some point, is built in. As any fule book group kno, you can find something to criticise in the most brilliant or best-selling book. Short of taking all your clothes off at Piccadilly Circus, writing exposes you more than anything. It exposes you to internal and external criticism. It is the final confirmation that, no, you are not perfect. You probably aren’t even brilliant. But if you keep at it, you may, eventually, write a good book that a number of people think is worth reading.

People get very cross when a book they consider ‘badly written’ or ‘trashy’ hits the best-seller lists. ‘I could do better than that,’ they fume. ‘I’ve got a degree in English from the University of Somewhere Terrifically Grand.’ I’m not suggesting that anyone should say they like a book when they don’t. And I know that the fear of failure prevents many of us from achieving what we’d like to achieve. But these allegedly ‘trashy’ writers were brave enough to do their best. They faced their fear, and took off all their literary clothes to go out into the cold with nothing on. Otherwise known as ‘writing a book.’

On the other hand, I don’t know how to encourage my friend. Do I tell her that failure is an essential step on the pathway to success, and that she needs to tackle her fear of it? Or do I say that she’s ‘brilliant’ and that she ought to write more? What do you think?



Posted in: From the Author by Nina Bell on October 15th, 2012