Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Running for Pancreatic Cancer UK

Today, I so very happy to have, someone I am proud to call a friend, Chris Stovell sitting round my pool. Chris is a top selling author with Choc Lit and an amazing runner. We even run together most days, virtually! Today, Chris is talking about her latest half marathon and why she’s running for Pancreatic Cancer UK. Her story is a moving one, so please have a tissue ready, it certainly made me cry. Now please help yourself to a glass of bubbly, settle down under a parasol and meet my lovely friend…. Take it away Chris….

Well Pauline, I think we both deserve a sit down by your pool after all the running we’ve been doing lately!  It’s great having a running buddy - even if we don’t actually manage to run together - but thinking about you running in those scorching temperatures means I’ve got no excuse not to get up and go out when the skies are grey and it’s raining here… i.e. most of the time!  I’m also enjoying running in the Earthathon virtual relay we’re both taking part in; it’s just a bit of fun but it’s been marvellous to receive so much encouragement and support from runners across the globe.

I don’t know about you, but I find running and writing are mutually beneficial activities.  Running’s taught me that half-marathons are just a series of small steps; at the beginning of a race I’m always afraid I won’t finish, but by putting one foot in front of the other I somehow cross the finish line.  This has given me more confidence in my writing; I’m a slow someone writer but I know that every 90,000 word novel begins with a single sentence and with every sentence I get closer to The End. Running also works as a meditative practice for me; all the thoughts of trial and tribulations cluttering my head recede as I concentrate on the rhythm of my breathing and the rise and fall of my footsteps.  I’ve had a tough couple of years with health niggles and a family bereavement, but at last I’m going forwards with my work in progress.  I often find that plot ‘knots’ untangle themselves during a run - I’ll arrive at my desk and suddenly realise what to write next.

I’ve just started training for my ninth half marathon, the Cardiff Half which takes place on 2 October this year.  After much thought - because it’s always hard to ask people for donations when money is scarce and there are so many good causes - I’m running for a second time to try to raise funds for Pancreatic Cancer UK. Pancreatic cancer is known as the ‘silent’ killer because many of its symptoms reflect less serious illnesses meaning that by the time diagnosis is confirmed it’s often too late – which is what happened to my dad.  Unfortunately pancreatic cancer survival rates remain shockingly low and this grim disease is still taking too heavy a toll.  Pancreatic Cancer UK is fighting to make a difference though supporting those affected by the disease, investing in research and campaigning for change.  It’s too late for my dad, but one day the breakthrough will come which might spare another family this pain. You can read our story on my JustGiving page and here.  Thank you for your time.

When you’re sitting, waiting with fragile hopes, in a hospital room for relatives, it’s brutal to be told instead, ‘the operation was a complete success – but we couldn’t remove the cancer.’ Pancreatic cancer is known as the ‘silent’ killer because many of its symptoms reflect less serious illnesses meaning that by the time diagnosis is confirmed it’s often too late – which is what happened to my dad.  The Whipple procedure, the major surgery he withstood, which might have prolonged his life, came too late. 

I’m afraid I can’t provide photos of sad kittens or cute puppies to make my chosen cause seem more appealing. Pancreatic cancer isn’t very pretty, it’s cruel, it ravages strong beautiful bodies and is no respecter of fame, talent or fortune. All we have left are a few reminders of what the disease took away from him, and ultimately, from us.

I still have my dad’s last pair of glasses complete with his fingerprints. Light Titanium frames with sprung sides and high-index lenses.  On a ‘cost per wear’ basis they were never going to be a good investment, but medication combined with the dying of his own light had played cruel tricks with his vision.  But my dear friend, Jill, Best Optom in the World, did her best for him and this pair gave him a few more weeks of reading pleasure – not the dense, academic tomes he’d previously relished, perhaps, but at least he could read a newspaper, engage with the world a little and enjoy his stamp collection. After his death, they came to me.  When I opened the case there was another slip of paper placed beneath the cleaning cloth.  Phone numbers. Waypoints for the final path.  Mum’s mobile, my sister, our husbands, my two grown-up daughters and me.

I have a set of book cases Dad made for me. He was a carpenter and joiner, often called in by architects when they needed someone with traditional skills who could make oak staircases, roof lanterns or sash windows.

The back pain he suffered with pancreatic cancer was relieved a little when he leaned forwards. He made himself a lectern so he could read sitting at a table. It now sits on my desk.

A wooden block also sits on a corner of my desk.  It’s an intensely personal and profoundly moving object.  What is it?  Well, it’s one of pair, the last things Dad made for himself which were designed to keep his bed at a more comfortable angle during his final weeks. 

And the rest of our tangible memories are photographs of the man we loved, lost and miss every day. One of a kind, my dad

Pancreatic cancer is the fifth leading cause of all UK cancer deaths, but research into the disease is extremely underfunded and survival rates have not improved in forty years. It’s too late for my dad, but someone else’s dad might live longer if those survival rates improve. Please help if you can.

And thank you Pauline for your generous support, for being a terrific running buddy and letting me chat by your pool.  I suppose we’d better get on with some writing now, hadn’t we?

Christine Stovell says all her writing - short or long fiction, poetry or feature writing - is about making sense of the world.  Her novels are published by Choc Lit and she has recently completed a series of house interior commissions for The English Home magazine.

A huge thanks, Chris for sitting round my pool, you inspire me on all counts and I hope your fund raising continues to grow making every km you run feel like a golden step. I'm now away to change into my running kit so we can have a short 8km run together. 

Also a big thank you  to you for stopping by. I hope you have enjoyed meeting my friend. I will be back soon with more news on my running, poster designing and of course, my latest book. Until then, take care and I hope the sun is shinning on your face and in your heart.



Saturday, 25 June 2016

The Importance of Branding

I must apologise for not being here of late, but a lot has been going on. As well as running I have been writing again! Yes, I’ve got over the very low I went through and got myself back in the saddle and I hope to be able to tell you more very soon. In the meantime I have my lovely author friend, Jan Ruth sitting round my pool talking about her fabulous books, their new covers and  the importance of branding. So please settle down on one of the sun recliners, help yourself to a glass of bubby and meet Jan.

All your Jan, take it away…

I’m on my fourth set of book covers!

When I first began self-publishing some five years ago, I uploaded three titles onto Kindle sporting the obligatory homemade covers. Actually, looking back – they weren’t too bad! But over time, it occurred to me that Kindle was not only a mostly American market but I was going to have to try much harder for visibility as the number of available titles seemed to increase on a daily basis. I set about finding a good designer to produce a bold, professional-looking brand. And as most authors are aware, unless you have a famous pen name, then your covers are going to have to do the majority of the marketing for you. I knew this, even then, but I wasn’t looking objectively at my potential reader base. I was too close to the material, and too inexperienced with market trends.

At this stage, I still had just three titles and no plans of writing sequels to any of them, but despite the simplicity of this, I struggled to reflect my material. Romance is one of the biggest selling genres in fiction – according to Amazon. And yet if you admit to writing about relationships, it attracts an element of disdain. As with most styles, the extremes are always easy to identify. If it’s a Fifty Shades book, then it will be a ripped torso and some handcuffs. Chick lit? Easy… shoes, handbags, cakes and cartoons. Happy smiling couples? That’s Christian Romance, or Mills and Boon. But what about the rest of it? There are literally thousands of romance titles out there which these successful, albeit cliched images, don’t reflect.

More on this current trend here: http://www.thebookseller.com/news/choc-lit-335396
What I did get right, in principle, was the human element as I think the reader needs to identify with the protagonist in character-driven fiction as opposed to plot-driven fiction such as crime. The problems began when I started to write more books, some of them sequels, some of them with a slightly different feel. The essential genre of the books became fuzzy, as did the concept of the original designs, and it became increasingly difficult to work with as a form of branding.

Then along came the traditional publishing deal and I fell into the trap of thinking that they’d have more experience in this department then me. I’d had communications with agents and publishers in the dark and distant past as followers of this blog know all too well, and one of the major stumbling blocks had always been the in-between genre problem – which probably represents a huge majority of independent authors. I think it still has the traditional publishing industry throwing up their hands in despair. “We’ll never sell this, it’s time-slip-historical-paranormal. What would we put on the cover?” I used to scoff that they lacked imagination. They probably do… but that’s not the whole picture, they lack time, money and inclination more.

Of all the marketing I’d tried, the move to a small publisher had to be the worst decision ever, for me. And I’m partly to blame when I stated initially that maybe I didn’t want characters on the cover anymore. The result was something so bland and plain that any indication of content and what to expect – was non-existent. I was rather hoping they’d know exactly what they were doing but I guess if it isn’t chick lit or erotica, we’re back to the same puzzle. What do they put on the cover of these books? There are romantic elements but the characters are way, way too old for chick lit and there’s not always a neat, happy ending. These novels are peppered with manslaughter, arson, domestic abuse, judicial use of a swear word or two, and here’s the quirky bit which throws everyone: a lot of British humour. They’re not ‘easy’ reads but they’re not especially literary or demanding either. I’ve always sought to entertain and engage rather than try and dazzle readers with the use of long words.

Because I feared the chick lit syndrome, I opted for Family Saga and Women’s Fiction as a means of general description. Neither of these woolly titles did me any favours. The worst element – according to my Welsh publisher was that they’re set in Wales! Books set in Wales don’t sell, they said… you need to set them in Cornwall, or have the men in kilts. I did spit feathers over this, but wait… this isn’t as nonsensical as you might think. The reason their mainstream genre books sell well is that they are clearly signposted by their cover design, and most importantly, the reader understands exactly what they’re getting. They don’t have to wade through the entire sample or spend precious time trying to decide if it’s for them. Simple, standard genre motivated cover art means a lot less work for the publisher too…

Leaving the traditional publishers behind due to a chronic lack of sales also meant I had to forfeit my US rights on three titles, but this went to reinforce what I should have done from the outset with regard to my images. I needed to make a definite shift into a specific genre. Maybe I had to grit my teeth and start calling them Contemporary Romance and embrace the fact that they’re so British. Whilst ruminating the errors of my ways I spotted a book on Amazon with a new cover –a book I knew well – a book which I’d read and loved some years ago, and I knew it was pretty close to my own material in terms of genre, age, location, and content. My decision to re-brand was formed there and then. I set about sharing my ideas with J.D. Smith Design and the process began in earnest.

We concentrated on two vital elements. My Welsh landscapes are a fundamental part of the stories and almost a character in their own right, so this needed to be a clear statement on the cover: stone walls, wild ponies, mountains, heather, tumbledown farms… all of these elements underpin the books, and the romance genre after all, is about escapism. This background creates a romantic aspect in the blink of an eye – and sometimes, this is the exact amount of time we get to impress a reader. In the next second, the reader needs to identify with the story and the protagonist; so the characters needed to be modern against those sometimes historical looking backgrounds – and finally, they needed to appeal to readers generally above the age of 35.

Working with J.D. Smith Design again I was able to give my work the bespoke service it deserved. Everything was carefully considered and time taken to make sure all the elements were correct, true to the material, inviting and engaging. The clever use of different fonts meant that my series sat together as they should. An interesting upward trend has developed with my equine series Midnight Sky, and Palomino Sky. Clear branding on these two books (horses, realistic characters and yes let’s be honest, a rugged outdoor guy is eye-catching. He doesn’t have to be cheesy or bare-chested!) have significantly increased sales in the US and Australia, where before they didn’t get a look in. This is interesting because back in the old days I had an agent who told me to ‘back-off with the horse stuff, it puts people off.’

If this exercise has taught me anything it’s to be true to the material. Not only have I given my books the very best in cover design with clear definitions, the overall re-branding has increased sales by at least 60%.

The importance of book cover design and careful branding cannot be underestimated!
More on design and branding here: https://goo.gl/VVx3du

Thanks Jan for sitting round my pool and thank you so much for stopping by. I will be back soon with news on my latest book. Until then, take care and I hope the sun is shinning on your face and in your heart.

Until next time.