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 instagram.com/p/Cge-rZUs65s/?

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.

When is a weed not a weed?

What is meant by frames of reference?

These photos were taken around my garden and the plants are technically weeds. The dictionary defines a weed as ‘a wild plant growing where it is not wanted’. These self-seeded wild flowers taking advantage of cracks and crevices – and the ones crowding out the cultivated plants in my flower beds – they all fit this description: they are plants in the wrong place.

But I find them quite beautiful.

A person who prides themselves on their gardening skills or wants to have a prize-worthy lawn or vegetable patch would immediately dig them up, maybe adding some weed killer to be doubly sure they won’t return next year. But preferring a more ad hoc natural style, I’m intrigued by what will pop up next and enjoy their variety.

In psychology a ‘frame of reference’ is a set of beliefs or values on which you base your judgements. If I saw these plants as weeds my reaction would be very different. Our frame of reference influences how we react to life events, ideas, experiences and even other people. The way we perceive an event can be very different to someone else, even though we may objectively have had the same experience. This is because we are filtering the experience through our own preconceptions and interpretations.

By changing your frame of reference you can change your reactions and emotional response.

Imagine that you are driving and someone overtakes you at speed on a narrow stretch of road. You may interpret this as reckless driving, possibly making assumptions about the unknown driver – ‘boy racer’, ‘road hog’. The more you think about it the more you become wrapped up in righteous anger, hoping the driver gets caught by the police. Now let’s imagine that you recognise the car as it disappears off into the distance. It’s your neighbour’s vehicle and you know she is soon to give birth, the baby due any day. Her eldest daughter could have borrowed the car… but maybe it’s an emergency and they are driving to the hospital? Immediately your reaction changes – you hope all is well and they make it safely.  

A change of thought and assumption changes the emotional reaction.

One way to change your experience of the world is to change your point of view. This is not always easy, but a good place to start is to notice what you are assuming and think of possible alternative interpretations. And if you cannot envisage a different way of seeing things, you could try:

  • imagining how someone else would perceive the situation, maybe a friend with a different attitude or someone you admire;
  • imagining yourself looking back on things when you are older and events are in the past;
  • considering the best, worst and middle interpretation of events.

As always, if you need help with challenging issues please seek the help of a psychotherapist or counsellor. BACP or UKCP have list of registered and experienced therapists.

P.S. The ducklings I was raising have been released and are now living happily on the pond. Photos and videos are on Twitter – @julestake3

The Joys of Spring

What do ducklings eat?

Ducklings just hatched

As I’ve been immersed in rewrites of late, I was going to write an updated blog on editing. However, a week ago we saved these newly hatched ducklings who’d been abandoned by their mother. They are just too cute not to have their own blog post.

Four hours old

They will need to be looked after for the next eight weeks until they can fly and survive outside. So, my Google searches have changed from the usual topics a suspense writer explores – ‘What happens if a person goes missing?’ ‘What is a synonym for xxx?’ ‘What’s the colour of the tape police use at incidents?’ – to questions like ‘Can a duckling eat spinach?’

These two are as fussy as small children, turning their beaks up at the chick feed I bought and rejecting my offer of finely chopped grass. They are particularly keen on handpicked dandelions, shop bought chicory, and liquidised tomatoes and grapes and have taken to pecking my hands in excitement when I appear with food.

In four weeks’ time they’ll be moved to a chicken coop and they can roam freely in a fruit cage during the day, safe from predators. Until then, if you see a woman foraging for dandelions and edible leaves it’s probably me!

How do you get rid of limiting beliefs?

Tackling negative beliefs that stop us achieving our goals

In my last blog I mentioned LIMITING BELIEFS. These includes such issues as:

  • Self-doubts (I’m not confident enough to join a club)
  • Thinking in absolutes eg I must, should; always, never (I should focus all my time on the kids)
  • Negative expectations (I’ll fail anyway so it’s not worth trying)
  • Blaming fate or luck or others (I’m just not lucky in life)
  • Mind reading others’ reactions/beliefs (They think I’m a nuisance)

These can be a problem for us because our beliefs and values drive our behaviour.

In this post I will give you a few suggestions and tips to help address them.

Please note: If you are struggling with beliefs that have been holding you back for some time or impact your day-to-day life, you may wish to seek help from a professional therapist or counsellor. The UK registering bodies for psychotherapists are:

Issue: a past event is causing the present response → Technique: leaving the belief in the past where it belongs

This is when a belief from the past has stayed with you longer that it should. Maybe as a child you weren’t good at something, or maybe a parent or teacher criticised you and you’ve generalised the negative comments and still carry that idea with you now. ‘I couldn’t ride a bike’ has become ‘I always fail when I try something’. Ask yourself:

            Where did this belief come from?

Whose voice is it? Who used to say this?

Issue: focusing on the negative  → Technique: reframing

Imagine someone shouts at a child who is about to put their finger’s in a plug socket. The behaviour – shouting at a child is negative – but the positive intent is to save them from harm.

            What is the positive intent behind your thought? What is it trying to save you from?

If you were trying to achieve this positive outcome for a friend, how might you do it with compassion?

Issue: recurring negative thoughts → Technique: looking for contrary evidence

One approach is to challenge our negative thoughts when we have them. There are helpful worksheets available at: https://positivepsychology.com/challenging-automatic-thoughts-positive-thoughts-worksheets/

Issue: avoidance → Technique: ‘Act as if…’ and behavioural experiments

Each time you avoid doing something you would really like to do, ask yourself ‘what stops me?’ (and be honest!)

            What would you do if you believed the opposite?

If you regularly think ‘I couldn’t…’ ask yourself,  ‘What would happen if I did?’

What small step could you take?

Issue: getting entangled in negative thoughts  → Technique: distancing 

Our thoughts are no more than imaginings. When we start to think negative things about ourselves or our chances of achieving something it effects our chances of success.

Rather than mulling over the negative statement, say to yourself:

‘I am having the thought that…[insert your own thought here],

and it is only a thought not a fact.’

Issue: Mindreading what others’ might be thinking  → Technique: question your assumptions

Notice when you are attributing negative reactions to others without proof – ‘they won’t like me because I said x’; ‘he probably thinks I’m useless’; ‘she would prefer it if I didn’t go’. This is mind reading. You are making assumptions about others’ reactions, thoughts and views. Ask yourself,

What evidence is there to support this?

Is there a possibility that they might feel the opposite?

What would be more realistic?

What’s stopping you from achieving your goals?

Identifying the blocks

Photo by Tim Wilson on Unsplash

Before you can resolve a problem, you have to diagnose what the problem is! So what’s stopping you achieving what you want to achieve?

This blog post will help you identify what is getting in your way and holding you back. We’ll look at these blocks as three different clusters so we can pick apart the underlying problems. But first let’s take an example:

Alex works in a noisy environment with constant interruptions. They have too much on their ‘to do’ list already and can’t prioritise. But if someone asks them for help, or says ‘can you just do x?’ they don’t like to say ‘no’ as they are worried they will look bad. They are already stressed but feel they should be able to cope and feel selfish if they focus on their own needs.

Think about this example as you read about each block to achievement, below. You might also like to consider your own situation. (Like Alex, you may find that you can identify issues in all three!)

Firstly let’s think about PRACTICAL PROBLEMS. These are related to the context you are in. This may include:

  • Lack of time
  • Lack of money
  • Difficult working environment eg crowded, noisy, interruptions
  • Lack of resources, kit, people
  • External pressures or responsibilities

eg. Alex lacks time and has constant interruptions.

The second type of block is ‘KNOW HOW’ ISSUES. These relate to habits and behaviours that we don’t know how to change, or skills that we lack. This might include:

  • A lack of experience
  • A lack of knowledge
  • Lack of practical skill
  • An unhelpful habit
  • A way of approaching the task that is unhelpful

eg. Alex doesn’t KNOW HOW to say ‘no’ and can’t prioritise.

Often there is an assumption that if the person just knew how they would be able to achieve more or do better. But now we come to LIMITING BELIEFS. These are the unhelpful ways of thinking about ourselves, others, or the task, that get in our way. This includes:

  • Self-doubts (I’m not the type of person who…)
  • Absolute thinking – must/shouldn’t, always/never
  • Negative expectations (It’s not worth it, I’ll fail anyway; things will never change)
  • Blaming fate or luck or others
  • Mind reading others’ reactions/beliefs

eg, Alex worries about other’s thinking negatively and feels selfish.

Each of these blocks requires a different approach to resolve. Separating them out can help us think more clearly about next steps.

PRACTICAL PROBLEMS may need work-arounds and possibly support/advice from others to address (friends, neighbours, charities, managers, unions, etc).

KNOW HOW ISSUES need access to training, teaching, coaching, mentoring, feedback, experience, practice.

LIMITING BELIEFS benefit from challenge and reframing. I’ll post more on this last block next month, but if you have long term limiting beliefs or an urgent issue you may benefit from coaching or therapy. If you need professional help the UK registering bodies for psychotherapists are:

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