Meet the inspirational team behind Sapere Books!

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In March 2016 I interviewed Amy Durant, a successful Publishing Director, as a guest on my blog; two years later I am delighted to welcome Amy back as a co-founder of a new and exciting enterprise, Sapere Books.

Amy

Hi Amy,

Such a lot has happened in a comparatively short space of time. Not only have you started your own imprint, but have also been short-listed for major industry awards. How have these motivated you to build an even more dynamic career and when/how did the idea of ‘Sapere Books’ come into being?

I think all of three of us had been independently toying with the idea of setting up our own business, but none of us had the confidence to voice it publicly or ‘go it alone’. We all decided to move into freelance careers for different reasons after leaving our jobs in publishing, and one day – over a couple of drinks, of course! – we finally all blurted it out and realised this was something we could actually do! We all have strong skills in different areas and I think all of us are confident that we are much stronger in a partnership than we would have been on our own.

It is a lovely name, what was the inspiration behind it?

‘Sapere Aude’ was actually my school motto and roughly translated means ‘Dare to be Wise’, and ‘sapere’ on its own means ‘knowledge’, which we thought was quite appropriate for a publisher. It also links nicely to our owl logo. We wanted something a bit different that would get people talking, and it seems to have worked so far!

What do you think makes Sapere Books stand out from other publishers?

I think that – like many other small, independent publishers – we have the benefit of flexibility. We don’t have any external investors or anyone we have to report to, so we have the freedom to make all the decisions ourselves, which means we can experiment with things and change strategies at the drop of a hat. We have all worked with authors for a long time, and always felt in previous roles that authors got sidelined and somewhat neglected. Our focus is very much geared towards creating author brands and an author community, so everyone feels very much a part of the Sapere team.

What genre submissions are you seeking for Sapere Books?

At the moment we are publishing historical fiction (including crime, thriller, romance and saga); crime fiction; thrillers; romantic fiction; women’s fiction; popular history and historical biography. We are publishing both backlist, out-of-print books and brand new submissions, and we are particularly keen to hear from authors who have either already written more than one title, or plan to continue on a series from their submission.

You are one of three co-founders of Sapere Books, so I am delighted to welcome the other two:  Caoimhe O’Brien and Richard Simpson.

What are your special roles within the company?

AMY: I am the Editorial Director, so all submissions come through to me, and ultimately, I decide what we publish, although this is something we all discuss together, and I often send scripts to Richard and Caoimhe for second opinions. I work one-to-one with authors once the contracts are signed, shaping their novels and getting them ready for the final copyediting and proofreading stage. I’ll then discuss publishing schedules and marketing strategies with Caoimhe to make sure all the books are released at the optimum time and work with her marketing plans.

CAOIMHE: I am the Marketing Director and I am responsible for the marketing and promoting of our books, authors and the company in general.This involves working closely with our authors on author branding, creating websites for them and coordinating social media campaigns.We have a dedicated team of reviewers and bloggers who play a huge role in a successful book launch and dealing with these eager readers is a really fun part of my job. I also spend a lot of time boosting the online profile of the company with the aim of growing our newsletter and reaching more readers.

Caoimhe

RICHARD: I work as the Operations Director for Sapere Books, which basically means that I spend most of my time ensuring that the company’s balances are healthy and that Amy and Caoimhe have enough funds each month so that we can invest as much as possible in all of our books. We constantly reassess whether new methods and strategies that we are implementing are efficient and cost effective to ensure that we are the doing the most we can to help readers see and read our books. However, my time isn’t always spent looking over spreadsheets, as being a small company our roles frequently have to cross over meaning that I often spend some days of my week looking over manuscripts and researching new marketing strategies.

Richard

 

In my previous interview with Amy she explained that she grew up with a father who was a successful children’s author (Alan Durant) and therefore books had always featured in her life, fuelling her passion. Have you both had lifelong involvement with books and publishing?

CAOIMHE: I spent my childhood with my head in a book and did a degree and Masters in English at university but I didn’t consider publishing as a career choice until after my Masters. I wasn’t sure what career path to choose but when I thought about my constant interest in books throughout my life, it seemed like the only thing that made sense and I am very glad I made that decision.

RICHARD: : Although I spent the vast majority of my childhood with a nose in a book I certainly wasn’t surrounded by a bookish world. But although my parents weren’t avid readers they definitely fostered my love of history and encouraged me to read anything that I could lay my hands on. Perhaps their biggest influence on my life now was due to the fact that when I was a child they jointly began a small company, R & J Simpson Engineering, which builds and repairs historic racing cars. Seeing how a small company develops and works influenced me greatly when thinking about setting up Sapere Books with Caoimhe and Amy, and many of the lessons they learnt in the early years I’ve been very keen to implement into our company. 

What do each of you look for in a book as readers?

AMY: I read widely and across most genres, so what really grabs me when reading a manuscript is the strength of the characters and whether I am compelled to keep reading. We publish ‘popular’ genre fiction, so all our fiction titles have to be plot-driven and to fit within the confines of those genres (we don’t publish anything overly literary or experimental), and we often sign up authors who are either writing a series, or have a few books, so I need to finish a book with the desire to read more by that author. 

CAOIMHE: I mostly read contemporary and crime fiction with some historical fiction thrown in too. I look for plot and character driven novels. Readers enjoy lots of different genres and, as publishers, we must be able to look at a book objectively, not just as something we ourselves would want to read. But regardless of genre, the plot and characters must be strong enough to grab and hold the readers’ attention. 

RICHARD: Unlike Amy and Caoimhe I spend most of my time reading nonfiction, particularly histories and biographies. Firstly what I look for in these books is that it must have a compelling subject, secondly it must be grounded in solid historical research, and thirdly, which historians who focus solely upon the research sometimes forget, it must be well-written. I’ve got a huge range of interests though and will happily read books about almost any subject from ancient Mesopotamia through to the development of Meissen pottery and beyond.

 This is such an exciting venture and I am delighted to have signed up with Sapere Books.logo-1-circle_filled

 

Freedom’s Flow

New release!

1815: Raised in a convent, Ruby has been taken from its shelter to be placed in the service of Mr Sedgwick of Tilbury. Her new master is elusive, and the reason for her presence there seems a mystery.

Meanwhile, Giles Marram has returned home from the wars to find much has changed – a beautiful maid has been moved into the Hall. But why is Marram’s former captain seeking her out?

 

 

Nicola Cornick, chair of The Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA), an historian and award winning novelist, explains what the organisation offers both published and unpublished writers of romance.

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I am delighted to welcome back Nicola as chair of the RNA.

What can the organisation offer romance writers in 2018?

‘The RNA is the professional organisation that supports and promotes romantic fiction in the UK. Membership of the RNA offers authors the chance to strengthen their career through developing their craft at our workshops and conferences and to build a network with other authors who understand the challenges we face and can offer advice and support. We are also building strong links with the industry and our events give authors the chance to meet a wide range of agents, publishers, booksellers, librarians and other professionals.’

That seems to present a broad spectrum of activities and opportunities to support your members.

‘In addition, members receive Romance Matters, our quarterly journal covering all aspects of writing romantic fiction from the craft to industry issues, discounted tickets to all our events and the opportunity to join regional groups. So the benefits are both professional and social.’

Nicola stresses that although the emphasis is on the professional advice, events and networking a friendly and welcoming atmosphere is nurtured. So how does a writer become a member?

‘The RNA welcomes traditionally and independently published authors. Membership is in different bands: A full or independent Author Member is currently £50 (£57 for non EU based) and £60 for Associate Members (£67 for non EU based). All the details can be found online at or by contacting the membership secretary, Gill Stewart, on info@romanticnovelistsassociation.org.

The organisation also welcomes and encourages as yet unpublished writers into its ranks. The New Writers’ Scheme is unique as Nicola explains.

‘We’re very proud of the New Writers’ Scheme (NWS), which provides the opportunity for aspiring authors to submit a manuscript for critique by an experienced writer in the genre. Not only is it a great way for new writers to improve their craft, it also gives encouragement and support. As the RNA has close links with publishers and agents the NWS can provide a route for them to make those connections. Unsurprisingly it is hugely popular and each year a number of NWS members go on to achieve publishing contracts.’

The scheme is open to writers interested in submitting an unpublished romantic novel (or partial) and this year the membership fee cost was £135 (£145 for members outside the EU). This also allows unpublished authors to take part in all RNA activities as well as submitting a manuscript of a full-length novel for appraisal. More details are available by email to: NWS@romanticnovelistsassociation.org There is a cap on the number of submissions that can be accepted each year and acceptance into the scheme is therefore on a ‘first come first served’ basis. The entry slot for submissions closes at the end of August each year.

Today’s publishing environment seems to be becoming more challenging, but Nicola is very optimistic about the present market for the romance genre.

‘I think the romantic fiction genre is changing all the time to reflect both modern life and the changing publishing world. The genre is a broad one. You can find strong romantic elements in many different sorts of novels where people are writing about relationships, whether this is contemporary fiction or epic historicals or books for young adults. Our membership reflects all of these different threads. We also see the books reflecting the concerns of contemporary society, whether it is issues such as work life balance, infidelity or health. The recent return to popularity of Gothic romance perhaps reflects the idea that spooky stories resonate in uncertain times. And of course romantic fiction also continues to provide its readership with the wonderful feel-good stories that readers love.’

Looking forward, I asked Niocla if she thought that the scope for romantic fiction will narrow as lines in the market place are redefined, or do she saw it flourishing as it has done in the past?

‘I see a lot in the press about how the genre is being more and more tightly defined and categorised into sub-genres, but actually at the genre level, in the UK at least, I see it continuing to broaden out. There are romantic relationships represented in a whole range of novels from crime and sci fi to literary fiction. The RNA’s membership reflects that and our awards and events will continue to embrace that wider focus.’

How would Nicola like to see the organisation evolve under your tenure?

‘I’d like to see the RNA continue to provide great support for its membership whilst looking outward a bit more in our promotion of excellence within the genre. We would particularly like to build our relationships within the industry, with booksellers and librarians as well as with publishers and agents. We’d also like to put romantic fiction even more firmly on the map by reminding people what a very successful and dynamic genre it is in business terms.’

Nicola’s natural energy and enthusiasm for the genre shines through her vision, but can romance remain genre specific if there is a need or desire for a more open working relationship within the industry?

‘I think we can do both if we don’t constrain the genre too tightly. Our core role is to support our membership and as this is drawn from a broad range of romantic fiction this fits with the idea of needing a more open working relationship within the industry. With this in mind we are planning a series of joint events with the Crime Writers’ Association and the Historical Writers’ Association, amongst others, where we can explore the things we have in common and the support we give each other as writers more generally.’

 

Nicola Cornick is the author of dual-time gothic novels House of Shadows and The Phantom Tree (HQ) and also forty plus Regency romances. She is a former trustee of the Wantage Literary Festival and a historian and speaker specialising in public history.

 

Martin Edwards, chairman of The Crime Writers’ Association (CWA), explains what the organisation offers its members.

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‘The CWA is constantly expanding. So are the benefits we offer our members. Writing is a solitary occupation but we offer the chance to join regional chapters, attend our national conference, and receive an excellent monthly newsletter, Red Herrings – plus much more besides. Members value our various social media platforms, and the chance to promote their work to the large subscriber bases of the very popular Case Files and Crime Readers’ Association newsletter. But it’s the collegiate ethos of the CWA that remains its most valuable asset and benefit. In my 30 years of membership I’ve met many wonderful people, and made some very good friends. And their support, through good times and bad, is beyond price.

The CWA has changed a lot in the 64 years since it was founded by John Creasey. Although it is UK based the membership is international and is open to published crime writers, with provisional membership to writers who have a contract but whose book is not yet out: Full or Provisional Membership cost from £55 annually. There is also an option for associate membership for those in the publishing industry.

This does not mean that the aspiring crime writer has been forgotten.

We are keen to encourage new talent within the genre. The CWA is a professional organisation for professional writers, and others in the crime writing business, but – to take just two examples – the CWA Debut Dagger for unpublished novelists and CWA Margery Allingham Prize for new short stories both play an important part in encouraging and developing talent. We also have the CWA Criminal Critique service where, for fees beginning at £87 writers can receive professional feedback on, as yet, unpublished work.

The Crime Readers’ Association, which is free to join, was set up to make the authors, their works and events accessible to their readers. However, the new writer can pick up advice and tips, such as the Do’s and Dont’s when approaching a literary agent.’

Martin is very optimistic about the way the crime genre continues to evolve.

‘Digital publishing is changing the industry fast and nobody knows exactly what the future holds. But crime writing (fact as well as fiction) is as popular as ever. I’m a contemporary crime novelist, but I’ve been delighted by the revival of interest in classic crime fiction, and the truth is that the genre is a very broad church. So is the CWA.’

In light of all the changes that have happened in recent years within the publishing industry Martin views the future of the crime genre and the organisation in a very positive light.

‘I’m confident about the future of both crime writing and the CWA. Despite the fact that we have been around so long, today we have more members than ever before – and the number is rising all the time. That’s genuinely exciting. Writers face many challenges, not just when they are starting out, but throughout their careers, and the CWA is doing more and more to support them. I’ve also just appointed our first Libraries’ Champion and our first Booksellers’ Champion as we seek to collaborate with others for the benefit of all.’

Although the organisation is genre-specific Martin is keen to establish mutual links with other writing organisations within the industry.

‘Whilst the CWA is by definition genre-specific, I’m a firm believer in collaboration, and since becoming Chair I’ve initiated dialogue with a range of groups both here and overseas. A good example is our developing links with the Romantic Novelists’ Association, at both local and national level. Again, these relationships are mutually beneficial, and have great potential for all our members.’

Martin is a relatively new chair but he has already set many new goals to achieve during his tenure.

‘My aim is to oversee the modernisation and professionalization of the CWA, whilst remaining absolutely committed to its core traditional values of collegiality. Achieving this requires action on many levels – local, national, and international. We are modernising our infrastructure, strengthening our finances, recruiting more members here and overseas, and developing relationships with sponsors and other like-minded organisations. What we are seeing really is a quiet revolution, a radical one in some respects, but a process of making sure that the CWA and its members thrive in a challenging environment, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. We don’t neglect our past – for instance, we’ve just launched the British Crime Writing Archives at the wonderful Gladstone’s Library, near Chester, with a weekend festival, Alibis in the Archives, that was such a success that we plan to repeat it next year. But we also look to the future – for instance, we’re starting to work with the ALCS, and looking at how we might contribute to the work of the All Party Parliamentary Writers’ Group. A huge amount remains to be done, but our continuing growth illustrates vividly that writers see a real need for the CWA, and are keen to be part of a forward-looking association that always strives to support and promote crime writing in general, and its members in particular, as well as encouraging new writers into the genre.’

When asked what advice Martin would give to new writers of crime he explains that he is a planner.
‘The great thing about writing is this – you can always improve what you have written. A plan works well for me – not everyone is the same, of course. But even the best laid plans are sometimes capable of being changed for the better. So far, I’ve never changed the original solution to any of my novels, but I’ve tinkered with many other elements of my stories.’

Martin Edwards’ eighteen novels include the Lake District Mysteries and the Harry Devlin series, and The Golden Age of Murder won the Edgar, Agatha, H.R.F. Keating and Macavity awards. He has edited thirty five crime anthologies, and won the CWA Short Story Dagger, CWA Margery Allingham Prize, and the Poirot Award. He is series consultant for the British Library’s Crime Classics, President of the Detection Club, and Chair of the Crime Writers’ Association. His The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books was published in August.

Promotion Time!

Stolen Treasure is now only 99p!

Some secrets are intended to stay buried...

In 1809 Elizabeth Matthews shares many a childhood adventure with her soul-mate, Thomas Lamb, son of the estate’s handyman.
Elizabeth is entrusted with the safe keeping of a tin box by her Mama but instead, leaves the task to Thomas’s father Joseph. However, life in the windswept north-east coastal village of Alunby is left behind when she is promptly sent away to be schooled in the city of York.
Risking her reputation, and a possible marriage match, Elizabeth dreams of the day when the secret inside the tin box will be revealed to her, and goes on a journey of rediscovery to find Thomas and seek out the stolen treasure.
Some secrets were intended to stay buried, however, what Elizabeth discovers is of greater value than she could ever have imagined.

‘Great read, especially for the price!’

Catching up with Margaret James!

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Welcome back, Margaret! I was amazed when I realised that you were my first guest in 2013!

I was amazed, too! My goodness, doesn’t time fly? Perhaps this is because writing a novel is such a long process and sometimes another year goes by without us really noticing? It’s very good to be back. I see that since we were last in contact you’ve had several of your books published by Endeavour Press.  Many congratulations!

Thank you! I love the cover of your new novel ‘Girl in Red Velvet’, which is book 6 in the Charton Minster Series. What inspired you to create this series?

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The inspiration for the Charton Minster stories was driving past a country house in Dorset at least a decade ago. I wondered who lived there and later that evening my imagination started to run riot, conjuring up a whole family and their descendents. The first novel in the series is The Silver Locket, which is Rose Courtenay’s story. The subsequent five novels are about Rose’s children and grandchildren and even her great grandchildren.

Who is the ‘Girl’ in Red Velvet?

The girl in Girl in Red Velvet is Rose Courtenay’s granddaughter Lily Denham, who goes to university in the 1960s and meets two men who become her friends, the three of them have some great fun together, but then Lily finds she is falling in love with both of them. She makes a choice which looks as if it will turn out to be a very bad choice indeed. Or will it? What do all three of these people want and how will they get it? I hope I’ve given them plenty of challenges but that I’ve also given all their stories satisfying endings.

Do you remember the 60s with fondness?

I do because I was young and at university myself and having a lovely time living away from home. It’s quite difficult for younger people alive today to realise what a huge place the world was then. I went from living in a small rural community where I never met anyone who wasn’t British and white to living in a big city where I met and made friends with people from all over the world.

What is next for Creative Writing Matters?

We’re expanding our range of writing-related services all the time. We run two major international competitions (The Exeter Novel Prize and the Exeter Story Prize which incorporates the Trisha Ashley Award for a humorous story) and we offer mentoring and various shorter courses and smaller competitions, too. We’ve found that offering feedback on competition entries has proved very popular so next year we will be doing more in that respect by offering feedback on some of our short story competitions as well as on entries for the Exeter Novel Prize.

What is next for Margaret?

It’s reading the entries for this year’s Exeter Story Prize, which closed on 30 April. We’re constantly astonished and impressed by the range and quality of entries, so although this is a pleasurable task it’s always quite demanding, too.

I wish you every success with all your amazing ventures. Reader’s can follow Margaret on: Facebook Twitter    or you can visit  Margaret’s blog

Catching up with Rosemary Kind!

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I just had to ask you back when I realised that it was Alfie’s birthday, Rosemary!

It is now five years since I started the short story download arm of Alfie Dog Fiction. Over that time I’ve had the privilege to work with many hundreds of talented authors and read quite literally thousands of stories. For some well-established authors we are the publisher they turn to for republication of their stories, but we have also been responsible for launching the careers of many new writers and I don’t say that lightly. It has been a privilege to work on stories for talented authors who have gone on to be very successful, either with their stories or novels. Many have told us that we have helped them on the way, giving them direction in some cases and in others simply the confidence that their work is good.

We realised with the resources we had available that it was not possible to grow the site exponentially and, in reality, that wasn’t what our readers wanted. What readers wanted to see was new stories regularly, but in place of, rather than as well as, all the old ones. We’ve worked with authors to achieve this and in the recent submission window selected around 60 new stories which are going live on the site over the coming weeks. It will give us a current total of around 325 authors and 1600 short stories to choose between.

Another more recent development has been a number of our book titles being made into audio books. So far this has included four novels and one short story collection, but we’re looking at further titles being added to the selection shortly.

Over the five years, we’ve brought out quite a significant number of book titles and there are currently 34 out in paperback or ebook.

What will the next five years hold? It’s always hard to say. One of the beauties of being a small organisation is that we can change easily and take opportunities that are presented. We have more books due out in the coming months and more short stories. At the outset we created the site because we believed in the medium of the short story. That remains as true now as it did five years ago.

If you would like to help us celebrate then this is what will be happening:

May 16th – June 20th A special feature of some of the best stories from our original authors http://alfiedog.com/fiction/featured/

May 16th onwards – five stories half price for five weeks – with stories changing weekly http://alfiedog.com/fiction/sale/

June 11th: You are very welcome to join our fifth birthday then you will be very welcome to join our ‘On-line birthday party’. We will be having party games and there will be prizes. You may need to bring your own cake as that’s harder to send out over the internet! The party is on Sunday June 11th from 7pm to 9pm UK time and you can find it HERE

Jun 13th onwards – five books free for download for five days each. For details of these offers see our Facebook page, Twitter @AlfieDogLimited , or Newsletter

Best wishes
Ros Kind

Co-author of  – From Story Idea to Reader – an accessible guide to writing fiction

Sign up for my newsletter HERE

Thank you for the update and for accepting seven of my stories!

I wish you every continued success.

FOR THE LOVE OF WRITING: INSPIRATION AND MOTIVATION

picture1In previous blog posts I have looked at how to keep yourself fit for the task of writing thousands of words and then how to set realistic goals to achieve them. Before moving on to looking at the actual writing of the fiction, two factors play an important part in beginning and completing the process: inspiration and motivation.

Where do you get your inspiration from?
What motivates you to write fiction?
These two questions are asked to many authors and the answers may be as varied as the individuals who the questions are posed to.

I am constantly inspired by anything from a name, a newly learned and intriguing little known fact, a place that sparks an idea or a simple overheard statement. Inspiration is all around us, we just have to be open to it and use our imaginations to ask that simple question: “What if?”

Once inspired to write, then motivation kicks in to drive our effort so that the idea turns into a real manuscript. We can be both inspired and motivated at the same time by reading our favourite author’s work.

Here are a just a few common motivators:

  • To escape from reality into a world of our making that we may or may not share with others.
  • To earn money (realistically, this is not an easy industry to break into or make a liveble wage from.)

Whatever your inspiration, you need the motivation to keep going, learning and growing as a writer; going beyond rejection to reach that place of acceptance and becoming a published author.If you choose to write for your own enternment that is fine. Once published there are always those who will look upon your work negatively and leave reviews to say so. This should not stop you writing what you want to, but the choice and opportunity to become published does mean that you have to accept the positive and negative reviews alike. Ultimately we have to believe in what we do.

Learn from those who have done it and also from any of their early mistakes, so that you can avoid some of the common errors yourself. Accept that it is all part of undertsanding the business and put rejection and destructive criticism aside, which is why I share author interviews, whilst taking on board the constructive advice.

Once you are keen to begin your project, then set your realistic goals and be determined!

You can network at conferences, online and in local writing groups. Or invest in a reputable course, join in schemes such as The New Writers’ Scheme run by the Romantic Novelists’ Association and seek professional feedback.

Writing is a lonely business. I am often asked how can you teach a person to write a novel or short fiction. My answer is simple: imagination can be encouraged not taught. It has to spark from within the writer. However, there are common errors new writers make as they learn their craft that can be corrected. Every person, every student that I have had the pleasure of teaching over many years has been unique. Therefore, my feedback is always tailored to the individual. If you have a manuscript that you are working on at the moment, or have finished, and would like constructive, professional feedback on, then please contact me on vholmesauthor@gmail.com for a quote.

What inspires or motivate you to write?

Catching up with Valerie-Anne Baglietto!

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Hi Val, welcome back!

Your first interview was back in 2013. So what exciting things have happened since then?

When you asked me, just before Christmas, if I’d like to do this update, I seem to remember silently screaming, No, go away, can’t cope with this, or something along those lines. Basically I was in festive meltdown – organising kids, grandparents, husband etc. – and didn’t want to have to think about work. After I calmed myself down and messaged you back, you kindly reassured me I could leave it until after January.

So here I am, revisiting my old self from a few years back, remembering what goals she set and what she was planning writing-wise. I’m satisfied that she appears to have achieved her aims, and of course, she’s set some new ones since then, too.

 (I’ll slide firmly into first person POV now, so I don’t sound any more pretentious than I have to.)

Firstly, ONCE UPON A WINTER, which had just come out before I was last here on Val’s blog, went on to top the Amazon UK Fairy Tale Chart in 2013 and at the last count had over sixty 5-star reviews. Understandably, I was thrilled about that, considering it was my first attempt at modern magical realism. The feedback from readers, both old and new, was encouraging.

Last time round, I also mentioned a short story I was contributing to the ‘Sunlounger’ anthology organised in 2013 by Belinda Jones. There was another one the following year, and I took part in that, too. My second tale, PANDORA  AND THE MUSIC BOX, has also been a featured read on Wattpad. I hadn’t attempted a short story in years, but I valued the discipline of keeping to a strict, low word count.

As for the novella I spoke about last time, I actually ended up writing two that year. A GIRL I KNEW (formerly known as The Trouble With Knights in Shining Armour) and my Christmas themed THE LITTLE BOOK OF LOST HEARTS. The latter set the scene for the next full length work, FOUR SIDES TO EVERY STORY, which I have to admit is the favourite of my contemporary fairy tales so far. It was shortlisted in the 2015 Love Stories Awards and was a 5-star read of 2015 on Chat About Books.

Last year was a bit of a departure, though, as I started working on something different from anything I’d attempted before. I even invented a pen-name – a whole other person to hide behind, which was liberating. But as the year drew to a close, I realised I wasn’t happy. I missed my fairy tales. For reasons rooted in insecurity, I’d begun to think they weren’t ‘proper’ books, not worthy somehow, and could never stand alongside the amazing, emotive fiction being published today.

Then it all changed. FOUR SIDES TO EVERY STORY was listed as a top read for 2016 on Portobello Book Blog, along with a dozen other titles, many of which I’m in awe of. Out of the 140 or so novels Joanne (@portybelle) had read that year, mine had been memorable enough to hover in her top 10(ish). I felt touched, and very grateful. Something clicked in my fragile writer’s brain. A realisation. Just because I choose to weave reality – or our concept of it – with traces of magic, doesn’t mean my work isn’t of value, or unable to hold its own in a crowded market. If this were true, then why is it  some of the most famous and enduring stories in our culture happen to be fairy tales, myths and parables? All through history, fiction has worked to make sense of the world around us, and often metaphors are the best way to do it.

So, when the kids went back to school at the start of this year, I dug out a notebook bursting with the plot for a sequel to FOUR SIDES TO EVERY STORY, and sat down as Valerie-Anne to begin this new project. And that’s what I’m working on right now. Oddly, it’s as liberating as having a pseudonym. I feel as if I’ve come home, having forgotten what a wonderful place it can be. I’m  energised by my writing again, rather than drained, and excited to find out what 2017 holds for me.

Thank you, Val, for inviting me to return to your blog, to share an update. I’ve enjoyed looking back as well as forward, and come to the conclusion that it’s quite a healthy thing to do at this time of year. Maybe everyone should give it a go!

 Exciting times for you, Val. I wish you every continued success in the future!

Phoebe’s Challenge

When life changes, a strong woman will survive… 

Phoebe's Challenge

Read the full story for only £1.99!

Chapter One

“Thomas Baxter, clear that floor!” Phoebe raised her head in horror as she heard the order bellow out of the miserable mouth of Mr Benjamin Bladderwell, the overseer of the cotton mill. She saw the fear on her young brother’s face. Thomas froze. He was nearly nine, half Phoebe’s age and, like her, slight of build. Phoebe watched his back slowly straighten. He was obviously trying hard to be brave.

Bladderwell pointed to the clutter under one of the looms, where dust and other fibres had collected. The overseer yelled above the cacophony of sounds between the machines. “Move yourself, boy. Now!”

Thomas did not move, but looked at Phoebe who sensed his fear. He was small but going under a moving machine was a job usually given to the younger children. Phoebe felt an unusual and strong emotion – hatred. Bladderwell relished every minute he could sustain his power over their lives. Phoebe had to be brave for Thomas’s sake. They had had to adjust to living amongst the cruelty of his regime keeping alive the hope that one day they could make a run for it and be free again. The time for that brave or foolish gesture, she sensed, was rapidly approaching.

“Move it, you lazy scum-bag!” Bladderwell took a stride towards Thomas. A young woman dropped her shuttle as Bladderwell stormed past; without pausing he clipped the back of her head. She let out a sharp cry, but did not hesitate in her duty of retrieving her tool and continuing the thread of the weft.

Phoebe and Thomas both loathed the shame and the abuse which had become part of their daily existence. This and the constant hunger inside their guts were why they knew that they had to escape, before they were too weak, or injured to run.

Immediately, Phoebe stopped her work, placing her basket of wound cotton bobbins on the floor and ran over to her brother’s side. Standing by him she spoke boldly, to protect the boy from a beating if not from the task he had been set. “I’ll do it, sir. I’m more agile than Thomas and quicker too!” She then inched in front of Thomas hoping he would snap out of his fear-filled trance before Bladderwell’s temper broke and he lashed out at them.

She tried to move him aside. Thomas’s panic had quite reached the point where his blood ran cold and his feet were rooted to the ground. She was able to gently push Thomas away, out of the direct eye line of the brute she was facing down. Bladderwell was staring back at her. Phoebe decided they would run for it that very night if they were at liberty to do so.

Bladderwell swung the back of his hand down towards her. He was hefty in build. She instinctively ducked to avoid the force of the contact, but Thomas did not move so quickly, and the blow landed across the boy’s cheek. Thomas fell back onto the damp floor, scraping his knee through the thin fabric of his clothes. Phoebe saw his head turn sharply toward his attacker, the trance broken, flashing a look of pure unmistakable hatred at Bladderwell.

The man’s face creased with a grin. Somehow they had to run, Phoebe thought, as fear filled her soul. With the rags they stood up in as their only possessions, they would have nothing to weigh them down. When they had been brought to the mill they had worn decent clothes on their backs, but they were exchanged for paupers’ rags within the first hour of their arrival, such was their welcome to this hell hole.

Winded, Thomas tried to stand upright again. He was fighting to recover, breathing in the cotton dust and damp humid air. The factory was kept hot and moist so that the threads did not break on the weaving and spinning machines. No one seemed to care what happened to the people who had to breathe within it. Phoebe believed somewhere there must be a mill that was run in a kinder manner, where people were treated with consideration and happily worked for a fair wage, but she had not heard of one.

The owner of this mill, James Bartholomew Atkins, grew richer by the minute, whilst his workers choked their way through another gruelling day’s labour. Phoebe could cry with the injustice of it all; meanwhile, her brother had been struck and she feared for what would happen next.

Phoebe gasped as Bladderwell cupped her chin in his hand, pulling her towards him.

“Listen, missy.” He moved his lips near to her ear. His rank breath made Phoebe want to heave. She tried to pull away. He tightened his grip, until she stopped resisting. “You can make life much easier for yourself and the sprat, down there. Don’t see how he’ll survive in here, not that one. He can’t control his temper in front of his betters. However, I’m not a bad man. I’ve a heart.  I’ll let the little rat off if you’ll come to the store house with me now and show Benjamin how sorry you is for his bad behaviour.”

He looked into her wide horrified eyes and grinned.

She glared back at him. Phoebe had grown up on a farm and knew how life began, she had seen how animals coupled and guessed it was much the same for people. Phoebe felt her stomach knot. Did he honestly think that for one moment she could let him touch her, or lift her skirts for him?

“You know what I want – you to do exactly that…” he whispered in her ear again, “… anything I want.”

Phoebe could not control her words, “Never! You’re evil!”

Thomas stood up as Bladderwell threw Phoebe to the ground. “Get down there where you both belong, and when you’ve ‘ad time to think, missy, you can crawls your way back to Mr Benjamin Bladderwell on your hands and knees! Then see if I’m as generous in me offer.”

Phoebe looked at the back of Bladderwell’s jacket as he turned to face the boy. One day soon, she thought, I’ll make you crawl. I’ll see you terrified and cornered!  She promised her revenge in her mind and, almost at once, as if the man sensed it, Benjamin turned on his heel and picked Thomas up by the scruff of his threadbare wool jacket.

“Ain’t you got work to do?” Bladderwell dropped him from the height of his extended arm onto the stone floor and simultaneously reached for his lash which he kept on a hook on the wall. It was a constant reminder to the children to obey their master.

Phoebe had to act fast. Her thoughts were filled with heated emotion as she cowered beneath the great moving monster trying to sweep the debris away. There was no room for her to move. She was not a child anymore. Her build was slight and her movements agile, but she was a young woman. She tried to wriggle slowly back out, whilst Bladderwell’s attention was fixed on Thomas. Where had the big brave bully been when they needed men to fight Napoleon? she wondered; hiding behind his horrid machines, no doubt.

Phoebe forced a picture of her father into her mind – a long ago memory, painful for her to rekindle, but necessary to give her the courage to do what she must do now. A good man like her father had died in the long wars with France, yet a brute like Benjamin Bladderwell still lived. Life, she had learnt, was just not fair.

Thomas’s eyes stared accusingly back at the substantial figure bending over him. Phoebe prayed they would be able to escape that very day – now, in fact, for if they didn’t they would be broken, in body if not in spirit by the time Bladderwell had had his way. But how? Their situation seemed impossible.

“I’m goin’ to strip the skin off your idle little back!” The lines on Bladderwell’s forehead deepened as he gritted his browning teeth and raised the lash high behind him ready to swipe down. Thomas had curled into the tightest small ball that he possibly could, trying to protect his head, especially his eyes.

Phoebe was incensed; she moved quickly without taking enough care.

“Agh!” The high shriek of Phoebe’s scream stopped Bladderwell as his head turned to face the cause of the noise, stopping the lash from falling back down onto Thomas.

“Phoebe!” Thomas shouted, and stood instantly, running over to where she was trapped. She could not help her tears escape as she cried out, but lay there motionless underneath the great machine. She could neither move forwards nor backwards so great the fear that had overtaken her.

There was an unspoken bond between the brother and sister. Thomas began to panic when he realised that there was blood on her hand.

“Get out of there, you stupid bitch…” Benjamin Bladderwell’s words were drowned out by the noise of the weaving machine, as its clatter grew louder and more irregular. Phoebe had somehow damaged the machine, as part of her sleeve had caught in its mechanism. Thomas grabbed hold of Phoebe’s ankles as he tried to ease her out. However, he lacked the strength to do it. The ground seemed to move under him as he was yanked back. Then Phoebe was unceremoniously dragged out also. She coughed as she fought for breath as her face was pulled through a cloud of fibrous dank dust. Once free, Phoebe rubbed her eyes so that she could see the gash in her arm that was as long as her little finger. She swallowed hard and held her wounded arm to her protectively.

“It will be all right, Phoebe. It’s not deep; you’ll see it will be fine.” Thomas was trying to reassure her whilst she straightened her dress after being unceremoniously released from her fate.

“Oh, Didy…” She could see the overseer’s face behind the boy and it both angered and terrified her. Phoebe and Thomas’s mother had always called Thomas Didy. It was short for Didymus, another name used in the Bible for Thomas. Phoebe thought it suited his spirit better.

Phoebe felt hatred well up inside her with the strength of feeling she could not have thought possible for her to bear before she had entered the life of hell that was the mill.

Nobody in the factory stopped working to help them. They were all too frightened of losing their precious positions. Work was hard to come by and although the pay was poor, it was better than none and the resulting humiliation and illness that followed being locked away in the workhouse. The adults would be grateful that it was not their child who had been hurt today. A woman glanced sympathetically at them, but did not turn away from her task for fear of punishment.

Thomas helped Phoebe to her feet. “She needs her wound tending… sir.” The last word had been added reluctantly. “That cut needs balm… and cloth to bind it up.”

Phoebe knew Bladderwell did not care; she had refused to pleasure him, he was more concerned about the damaged machine and work lost than her plight.

“Get back to your work, girl! You can tie a machine rag around it, to make sure that you do not drip your blood on the weave. Once done, then collect up those spindles. Now move!”

“No!” the lad’s voice shouted out.

Thomas had a hot head and a short temper when it came to injustice.

“There’s scraps of clean cloth there. If it’s clean it mends better, my ma said so!” he shouted.

“Didy, I’ll manage.” Phoebe, seeing the danger Thomas was already in, tried to act normally, but she was pale and frightened. Her voice had been low, almost like a whisper. It only served to embitter Thomas further; although nearly ten years younger than her, he liked to assume the role of her protector. They had been raised in a fine home, on a working farm – born free. It had been a new farm, one that had been enclosed and the crops rotated to use the land more effectively. Phoebe knew that Thomas liked modern thinking and ways. From his earliest words he had asked questions, ones his ma could not answer, which frustrated her, but like Phoebe it also delighted her as Thomas seemed quick of wit. He was not against machines, but hated their misuse and the greedy men who abused them.

When the lash was raised once more, Thomas reached out and grabbed one of the besoms propped against the wall; they were normally used by the younger children to sweep the floor at the end of the long day. He swung it wildly. The gesture seemed to exhilarate him, giving confidence. The lash came down wrapping around its handle, becoming enmeshed. Thomas pulled at the besom with all his body’s weight behind it, flicking it sharply and, using the moment of surprise in his favour, he managed to jerk it out of Bladderwell’s strong hand. He flipped it free, but Thomas could not control what happened next. All watched in disbelief as the lash flew one way and the broom the other. Phoebe had expected them to fall to the ground, she hoped that they would, but neither did. Bladderwell lurched at him, his balled fists now opened wide like two claws ready to grasp at their prey. Phoebe felt her throat tighten in a moment of panic, but the almighty sound of a machine crashing put a halt to Bladderwell’s intentions. His head spun around. Two women screamed, scared by the noise and clatter and crunching of wood as the besom’s handle splintered. Bladderwell almost fell to his knees as he watched the machine falter, before coming to a shuddering halt. Phoebe saw a glint of fear cross his face. He was answerable to the mill owner for the upkeep of the machines and their output. The whip landed on one of the other weaving machines, becoming tangled in the threads, bringing work there also to a grinding halt. Things had gone too far for them to stay a moment longer. They had to leave straight away – somehow, before they were caught and punished.

Benjamin Bladderwell’s face that had been bright red was now slowly turning purple. Thomas pushed Phoebe behind him and grabbed a scrap of fabric from the pile of off-cuts.

“Use this, Phoebe,” he said.

Thomas helped to secure it firmly and quickly around her arm.

“When I say run, run!” she ordered her brother who nodded – there was no other choice.

Phoebe started backing towards the large double doors at the end of the mill. Her arm hurt. She would rather have a cut arm than have had Bladderwell fumble her. He was evil and a bully and she was glad he would have to answer for the damage caused in the mill, but they would now be hunted as machine breakers.

They were near the doorway when Bladderwell ran like a mad man, storming towards Thomas. Words they had never heard before came rushing out of his mouth. Thomas waited till he was nearly upon them, then grabbed another broom handle and jabbed it hard at the overseer’s shin. Bladderwell dodged, slipped on the debris under his feet, but could not escape the blow that glanced off his jawbone. Thomas drew the broom back, looked the man straight in the eye and grinned fleetingly before taking his ultimate revenge. Phoebe realised his intent, but could not stop the boy. With an almighty thrust she could see that he took great pleasure in deliberately hurling the whole broom into the workings of the nearest loom.

“No!” The roar from Bladderwell’s mouth was nearly as loud as the commotion Thomas had caused. The apparatus came to a standstill. The workers ran to the side of the mill in trepidation. The sound of splintering wood and metal hitting metal echoed in Thomas and Phoebe’s ears as Benjamin and his men were busy trying to stop the carnage.

“Run! Now!” Phoebe shouted, “Didy, run for the gates and don’t stop!”

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