Bad, Sad or Mad?

Why do we interpret the same text differently?

Photo by Marten Newhall on Unsplash

My novel THE ACCIDENT was on a blog tour this month, which means it was reviewed online by a number of book bloggers. Knowing that my lead character Janice is a bit of a Marmite character, I was intrigued to see how the bloggers would react to her.

Bearing in mind everyone was reading the same book, it was interesting to see the range of reactions to Janice’s personality and behaviour.

Some saw her as a ‘bad’ person, deceiving others and manipulating emotions –

  •  ‘She became absolutely relentless in her search for answers; not only that, she started to become downright deceitful and fabricated the most enormously twisted lies.’
  • ‘It was a great read that kept me hooked but the obsession she had over the young woman creeped me out a little and some parts were a little uncomfortable.’
  • ‘The main character Janice, and several of the other supporting cast are creepy and their behaviour most definitely strange.’
  • ‘Janice’s behaviour goes to the extreme ends and she becomes obsessed.’

[Quotes from: herreadingroom, @bookblogHannah, staceywh_17, stratospherekawaiigirl]

Others had empathy for her. Acknowledging her background and some of her past experiences, they saw her as ‘sad’ –

  •  ‘Our main character is troubled, that has made me feel for her even more.’
  •  ‘Janice is a character that I felt a deep empathy for, she’s a kind woman who’s always felt inferior to her mother’s high maintenance …Her life was put on hold when her father passed away…’
  • ‘I felt sorry for Janice as you learn her story, she is lonely, but she doesn’t like big crowds, she is quite a caring person in her own way.’
  • ‘I pitied her, while not actually managing to like her.’
  • ‘I felt tremendous empathy for Janice. What she does may seem inexplicable to an outsider, but thanks to the intimate insights we gain from her internal dialogue, we relate to her very strongly and wish for a happy ending.’

[Quotes from: @Littlemiss book6,, @jackiesreading, @AngiPlant, rachelReadIt]

And some thought she was completely ‘mad’:

  •  ‘I was incredulous about her audacity and the lengths that she was going to to get to the truth but the woman was so bat-sh*t crazy that it made for pretty compelling reading.’
  •  ‘…obsessed to the point of compulsion, you can’t help but be hooked by her madness.’
  • ‘The Accident is definitely a page turner which is no mean feat when the main character is slowly becoming more unhinged’

[Quotes from: herreadingroom, @MiriamLSmith3, @TheBroadbean]

One reviewer, libcreads, summed it up: ‘I spent most of the book trying to figure out Janice – clearly obsessed, was she evil, bonkers or simply sad and lonely and desperate for a family of her own? Or a bit of all of the above? I was kept guessing and it was this that kept me turning the pages, keen to see what happened next.’

So why do we all interpret what we read so differently? There is a branch of social science called hermeneutics which studies the ways we interpret information. In a nutshell, it comes back to our own character, values and experiences – our inherent biases shaped by our upbringing and our culture. The Janice that I wrote will be interpreted completely differently by each reader. Just as she would if she were a real person, your neighbour or acquaintance – some would like her for her kind heart, some feel sorry for her in her loneliness, and others avoid her obsessive personality. As an author I have to accept that not everyone will see her, or her story, the way I envisioned them. They’re on their own now out in the wider world…

My thanks to all the bloggers and to @Tr4cyF3nt0n and Orion Books for organising the blog tour.

Why is waiting so frustrating?

Loss of control and our perception of time

Photo by Wim van ‘t Einde on Unsplash

If you’ve ever been to Disney you’ll have experienced their queue management process. Signs warn you of the likely wait time from any given point: ‘60 minutes’, or alarmingly ‘300 minutes’. They give you the information so you know whether you want to wait or not: you are in control of the decision and know what you’re letting yourself in for. Secondly, the times they post are the worst case scenario. They deliberately overestimate, so when you get to the ride in 50 minutes you think ‘that wasn’t so bad, quicker than we expected’. Finally, they keep you entertained while you wait with video screens showing trailers of the ride or event along the way. They understand how to manage the waiting in a positive way.

This highlights two elements that lead to our frustration while waiting: our lack of control and our perception of time. So, how can we use this to help manage our mood when we are waiting for something?

Distraction techniques: If you know you will have a long wait, plan for it. Line up other things you can do while waiting so you focus on those rather than the time it is taking. How can I constructively use this hour/two weeks/month? Do your emails while on hold to the call centre, listen to a podcast while waiting for the bus. Start another project while you wait for a response from the builder. Or in the case of an author, start writing the next novel while waiting weeks for the edits on the previous book!

Diarise: If you are waiting for a response from a person or organisation, you can feel out of control of the situation. It may also be nagging at the back of your mind as you can’t close the loop and move on, but dwelling and fretting doesn’t help. In these circumstances we typically overestimate how long we’ve waited. To regain a feeling of control, keep a note of the dates: when was the issue first raised? Don’t automatically assume you are being ignored, there may be other factors, so consider how long could (rather than should) a response take? When is appropriate to chase it up and how best should you raise your needs or concerns? Diarise what you plan to do and when, then set it on one side and focus on something else.

I ponder this now as a writer’s life is full of waiting. Currently I’m waiting to hear back on no less that six different writing-related things, (including the sales figures which I only receive twice a year and then three months in arrears). It’s taken me a while, but I’ve now learnt to manage my expectations, plan for the worst case timescales, diarise so I know when to follow up – and meanwhile crack on with the next book ideas!

Editing a video – How hard can it be?

Easy for those who know how!

Photo by Chris Murray on Unsplash

I am not a natural when it comes to technology. The idea of having to replace my laptop or mobile fills me with dread and I burble nonsense when I have to speak to professionals in the field, unable to understand the implications of Dolby Vision HDR, 512GB of data or 5G. Consequently, I’ve been slow to embrace the social medial trend for video clips and ‘reels’, fearful it will all go wrong and I’ll inadvertently hit a button and post my failed efforts to a wider audience. But this month I decided it was time to give it a go and when a friend sent me a link to a ‘simple’ video editing tool – clipchamp –  I was amazed to find it was relatively intuitive. Here’s the final version (click to watch).

Not bad for a luddite! But while I’m quite pleased with my initial experiments, I still haven’t mastered how to edit and post in Instragram… That will have to wait for another day when I’ve rediscovered my enthusiasm.

This coming month I’m working on my next novel and taking part in a couple of talks:

Writing Well – A two hour workshop which focuses on writing for wellbeing on 19th February 2023 from 2pm to 4pm at Randall Gallery, 13 Sydney Street, Colchester, Essex CO7 0BG. More information here.

Meet the Authors – where I’ll be in conversation with 3 other local authors about our books and all aspects of writing on 25th February 2023, 5pm start, at YMCA High Street, Colchester, Essex CO7 0AQ.  More information here.

If you live locally, do get your free tickets from and join me if you’re interested. It would be great to see you.

Does a lead character have to be likeable?

Or is it more important that they’re interesting?

Janice, the lead character of my second novel, The Accident, is a bit of a marmite character. An early reviewer commented, ‘Wow, the lead character!’ Another described her as ‘compellingly awful’. A third described the book as ‘A brilliantly-written display of the inner workings of a well-intentioned but self-deluding mind.’

It’s true that Janice is deluded, confident in her belief that she is helping others as she blunders into their lives with her lies. Like Tom Ripley and others before her, we follow these characters through the story aghast at what they might do next, waiting to see when (if?) they will get caught out. So, while lead characters don’t always have to be someone we like, they should be interesting enough for us to want to know more.

This month I was thrilled that The Accident was selected by the Crime Readers Association as their Recommended Read. Here’s the link: ‘The Accident’ by Julia Stone – The Crime Readers’ Association (

And apologies to anyone who tried to buy a paperback copy in the past month and had their orders cancelled. There was an issue with printing which has now thankfully been resolved by my publisher. Click here if you’d like to buy a copy.

And finally, every best wish for the New Year.

Photo by Carson Arias on Unsplash

What is the point of reviewing books?

The dreaded algorithm!

How often do you review a book you’ve read? It never used to cross my mind to write a review, even if I’d loved a novel and couldn’t stop thinking about it. Before my debut was published last year, I hadn’t realised how important reviews are to authors.

To be honest, we writers thrive on them. When Her Little Secret was published last year I was constantly looking at the reviews on Amazon, hoping each day there would be another one added. This was for two reasons: one personal and the other commercial.

In the modern online world, engagement drives algorithms which drive what we see online. My editor informed me that when I received thirty 4 and 5 star reviews on Amazon my book would be eligible for their online promotion. As I recall, sixty reviews was another target. In short, reviews are essential to book sales, particularly with ebooks. Without them, the book will disappear from the virtual shop front.

From a personal perspective, authors want to know how readers are reacting to their books. A writer works on their novel for a year or more, with many rewrites, edits and refinements. We get feedback from trusted friends and family, critical comment from our agent and editor, but until the book is out there in the world we don’t know for sure how others will react to it. We can learn so much from reviews; whether they are praising or constructively critical, they are all useful. So, if you read a novel and it engages you in some way, I’m sure the author would be grateful if you’d take a few minutes to post a review and tell them why!

How does a story relate to real life?

Interviews with crime/suspense writers Kate Evans and Phillipa East

It’s been a busy four weeks creatively!

Firstly, my second psychological suspense novel THE ACCIDENT has been published by Orion and is available as an ebook and paperback HERE!

Back in 2018 a first draft of this story was the winner of the Blue Pencil award and it’s already received some lovely prepublications reviews on NetGalley, including this 5 star comment: ‘I loved everything about this book. The main character…wow! I went through every emotion with her. A sad figure with an awful overbearing mother, a compulsive liar, a caring person wanting to help and also someone who wanted a normal life. I also found myself laughing out loud. A fabulously written drama…thoroughly enjoyed every page.’

Photo Brett Jordan on Unspalsh

Last week I was interviewed by the crime writer Kate Evans. She asked me a number of thought-provoking questions relating to psychology and writing. One was about the cross-over between therapy and writing/story telling. Here’s my response.

When someone comes for therapy they share their experiences as a story. We tend to think and explain in a causal, sequential way: x caused y which led to z. We include dialogue to bring things to life. We talk about our wants and needs, our hopes and fears. There are highs and lows in emotion. All these are features of story writing.

We all have a personal narrative, a story we tell our selves about our life and who we are, to help us make sense of our experiences. And this informs how we react to events in the here-and-now. One therapeutic technique is to consider whether this version of the story is useful to us in its current form; is there another interpretation of events? Or different language? Maybe it was something we were told by someone else, or it was a reaction to specific experiences and hasn’t been revised as we have grown. Helping people to reframe the way they think of the story, to see the events through a different lense, or to assume another role (survivor rather than victim), can lead to a significant shift in mental wellbeing.

The link to the rest of the interview can be found HERE !

And finally on a related note, at the end of last month I took part in a panel discussion on ‘psychology and writing’ with the writer Phillipa East and two other psychological suspense authors. The session was recorded and can be found as Panel 1 on Phillipa’s YouTube channel, HERE !

What makes a relationship last?

And how we can use these research findings in life and writing

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

American scientists Drs Julie & John Gottman have researched successful relationships for decades. What’s the foundation of a successful, happy relationship?

At its foundation, it comes down to communication – verbal and non-verbal.

The Gottman’s observed the way couples react to small bids for emotional connection in their day-to-day life. For example, this might be when one partner commenting on something on TV, or reading out part of an article, or offering a touch on passing in the kitchen.

There are broadly three ways to react:

‘Turn towards’ – engage, react with interest, listen, attend, respond

‘Turn away’ – ignore, not react

‘Turn against’ – reject, contradict, argue

The more partners ‘turned towards’ these bids for connection the stronger the foundations of the relationship. These small but positive day-to-day moments helped them to weather the ups and downs of life.

The Gottman’s research allowed them to predict with 90% accuracy whether couples would stay together happily, or suffer an unhappy relationship, or break up. One of the main predictors was how couples handle conflict: what happens when couples disagree with each other.

They found that those who stay in unhappy relationships or break up tend to handle conflict by: 1) blaming their partner and their personality; 2) escalating to contempt and insults; 3) getting defensive if asked to change; 4) stonewalling by withdrawing eg walking out or going silent. They are in flight or fight mode, treating it as a battle.

Those who stay together happily have a different approach to conflict – they are not as defensive; they take individual responsibility; they are gentler in way they bring things up, showing a sense of humour; and they stay in the interaction to keep working at resolution together.

It’s possible to learn a different way to speak and react when faced with a conflict.

  • Start by being calm and pleasant, with the positive intent to resolve rather than win;
  • Describe your feelings;
  • Outline the specific issue (not everything you don’t like about them!);
  • Be clear on your own needs.

In summary: this is what I feel about this specific situation and this is what I need from you. For example, ‘I’m feeling a bit frustrated because the house is a mess and I’d like it if you would clear up your things sometime this afternoon.’

So, what can we take from this as writers? If you want to portray couples in love or heading for divorce you might pick up some tips for the structure of their dialogue from the Gottman’s research!

In other news: At the end of September I took part with three other psychologists/therapists in a panel discussion, hosted by the author Philippa East. The talk was called The Psychological Secrets of Writing and the discussion ranged over a wide variety of topics in response to questions from the audience. The video of the session is available on Philippa’s YouTube channel: click here if you’d like to see it.

You heard it here first!

Announcing my new novel – THE ACCIDENT – publication date October 2022

I’m so excited as I’ve just seen the cover design of my new psychological suspense novel and I love it! As soon as all permissions are cleared I will mail it out to you all. Meanwhile, here’s a little bit about the story.

The background to THE ACCIDENT

Back in 2018 I frequently drove to Southend to visit my great aunt. One day on the return trip, I saw a couple kissing on the pedestrian bridge that spanned the A-road. It struck me as an odd place to stop for a kiss – engulfed by the noise and fumes from the traffic it was hardly romantic. Why were they meeting there?

That started the chain of thought that ultimately led to the novel, The Accident.

Photo by Chris Liu-Beers on Unsplash

What is the story about?

When an unidentified woman falls to her death from a bridge, landing on Janice’s car, the police rule it as misadventure. It’s not an act of suicide or murder, it’s just an accident. But for Janice, it feels that fate has thrown them together.

As a genealogist, Janice is used to tracking down clues – is even a little obsessive, one might say… The police know so little about the dead woman that Janice decides to start her own investigation into the victim and the people she knew. Surely someone must be to blame?

Sometimes the only way to uncover the truth is to lie… and for Janice, living a lie comes all too easily – she’s done it since childhood. Pretending to be the dead girl’s relative, she charms her way into the girl’s former life. As she builds relationships with the woman’s friends and family, she believes she’s found the loving family she’s been seeking all her life. However, all is not as it at seems.

What is the lead character like?

I love my lead character, Janice. I imagine that she looks like the actress Joanna Scanlon: a woman who day-to-day may look a bit tired and dowdy, but put her in the right clothes with the right people and she comes to life with her ready smile. Janice is a middle-aged woman who lives a quiet, single life, keeping herself busy with her genealogy work. In truth she’s still pining for her lost first love, and while she waits for somewhere to pour out all that  love she nurtures wild animals. She’s generous and kind-hearted, but while she tries to see the best in others she has her own set of values and makes wry observations about the world around her when things don’t live up to her expectations. And when the dead girl’s family fail her, her bitterness spills out…

The Accident publishes in October 2022 – I  hope you enjoy it!

What is meant by book genre and why does it matter?

A brief look at genre

I’ve just been to Harrogate Crime Writers Festival and it got me pondering what we mean when we talk about a ‘crime’ novel. I write psychological suspense, what does this have in common with mystery novels or police procedurals?

When you go into a library, a bookshop or browse on Amazon, the novels are categorised into sections to help you find what you’re looking for. These are typically broad groupings of books with similar topics, themes, styles of writing: e.g. romance, science-fiction, horror, historical. These are referred to as genres. Subgenres are a further breakdown into smaller groupings – for example, some subgenres of crime include detective, courtroom, legal, and historic.

Why does genre matter? Because there are certain expectations of different genres – in the way the story is told, how the plot typically unfolds, the cover design and title, and sometimes even the length of the book (think of the number of pages in typical historical novels!) In romance books readers expect a happy ending –  these even have their own acronyms, HEA (Happy ever after) or HFN (Happy for now). Readers of crime expect there to be a murder/serious crime or a mystery to resolve, and enjoy looking for clues before they find out who dunnit and why. These are all aspects that appeal to readers of the genre.

Writers need to know the expectations of their genre, (even if they hope to confound these expectations), so that they don’t unwittingly frustrate the reader. Literary agents and publishers want to know the genre of an unpublished novel to see how it compares to other books already published and decide how (if) they can market it. This is why writers are asked to identify ‘comparator novels’ – successful books written in the same genre published in the past two or three years that deal with similar topics/themes.

So, being clear on the genre of a book:

  • helps the author to write a story which will meet readers’ expectations,
  • helps agents/publishers know how best to market the book,
  • helps booksellers/librarians place the book alongside other similar novels,
  • and helps readers find the books that they enjoy reading.

P.S. If you are interested in reading an interview about my journey to publication, check out an interview with @Shellymackbooks at

Don’t assume!

Read the Instructions

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

For a few years in my mid-20s I was a maths and science teacher. At the start of the school year when a new intake of fresh faced children arrived, I’d set an exercise. Each child had a sheet of paper that clearly said at the top, ‘READ ALL THE INSTRUCTIONS BEFORE STARTING’. There followed a series of simple but irrelevant questions. Most importantly at the end of the paper it said ‘Ignore the questions above. When you read this just fold your arms and wait.’ Needless to say the children who had their arms folded first were (rightly) proud of themselves as the others beavered away. The point was (hopefully) made that in a science lab you need to understand all the instructions before you start, because chemicals and flames can be dangerous.

I was reminded of this exercise a few weeks ago. For many years I have entered a charity fund raiser for The National Brain Appeal, an organisation that researches a wide range of brain dysfunctions, including dementias and strokes. Annually they run an event called Letter in Mind and ask people to decorate an envelope and send it to them to sell anonymously via their exhibition and website. Most people paint or draw on the envelope, but being a ceramicist I usually make something three-dimensional related to that year’s specific theme which I then mount on the envelope. This year I came up with my idea and proceeded to make the clay model and after two firings I was pleased with the result. It was then that I sat down with the paperwork and filled in the form for submission – only to find clearly written in the instructions ‘NO THREE-DIMENSIONAL WORK THIS YEAR’!

It was back to the drawing board (literally) and I quickly had to create another design for the envelope that I could submit. But it was a salutary reminder not to make assumptions no matter how much you think you know what you’re doing!

In case any of you are creative and fancy helping this charity event there’s still time. Just register to enter and submit an envelope with a design on the theme of  ‘a sense of movement’ before 15th July. More information can be found here: A Letter in Mind: ALIM22 – National Brain Appeal (But read the instructions!!) And if you would rather view art than make it, the exhibition will be at Gallery Different, 14 Percy St, London W1T 1DR, 2nd to 6th November 2022.

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