Lizzie Borden Comes to Swanwick – Maggie Cobbett shares her fancy dress story from the 2017 school

Another stories from a fellow Swanwick alumnus. This week, it’s Maggie Cobbett’s turn, sharing with us her fantastic fancy dress outfit!

Shopping for fancy dress often turns up the unexpected. This year’s Wild Wild West theme seemed to call for Calamity Jane, Belle Starr or Minnehaha, but I fell in love straightaway with the axe murderess outfit based on the story of Lizzie Borden. (Yes, I know that she lived in Massachusetts. Surely some poetic licence is allowed at Swanwick discos?) The sleek black dress had long puffed sleeves and a high collar featuring a cameo brooch. It came with a voluminous net underskirt, lace-up waistcoat and mini hat with a half veil. The axe was an optional extra.

It wasn’t long after my arrival at The Hayes that certain drawbacks became apparent. The first of these was that I’d offered to co-host the Prose Open Mic, which was due to begin immediately after that evening’s speaker and would certainly overlap with the disco. With no time to change in between, I had to choose. The Lizzie Borden outfit won, of course, although I did get some odd looks in the Main Conference Hall during Cathy Cassidy’s talk on writing for children. Before that, though, there was the difficulty of actually getting into the dress with no one to help me. My room at the top end of Lakeside seemed curiously isolated. Having been told on several occasions that The Hayes was fully booked, I must have had neighbours, but I never saw or heard them. To add to the difficulty, the hearty nature of Swanwick food had started to have an effect on my already far from sylph-like figure. It took a series of painful contortions to squeeze myself into the dress and do up the long zip at the back. Fixated on the possibility of a ‘wardrobe malfunction’, I hardly dared to breathe out all evening.  The hat was a worry too. Held on with a wing, a prayer and a handful of hair grips, it obliged me to walk around like a Victorian schoolgirl in a deportment class. Did I mention that I was also wearing a pair of tight high heeled boots?

I hope that the writers who took part in the Prose Open Mic were not intimidated by the sight of me officiating with an axe in my hand as well as a borrowed egg timer and bell. Jennifer Wilson and I ran a tight ship and, by keeping to five minute slots, were just able to fit everyone in. The closest I got to the disco afterwards was the bar. I wouldn’t have dared to dance anyway, of course, but there was plenty of fun to be had admiring other people’s imaginative costumes and posing for photos

It’s just as well that I saved my energy for struggling out of the dress later on. Maybe I should have sought a volunteer to come to my room and unzip me but then again maybe not. We can’t all be as lucky as Poldark’s Demelza!

You can find Maggie at her online home here. She is also on Facebook.

A Swanwick Story: Patricia M. Osborne

In 2015, two members on a writers’ forum, Corinne Lawrence and Shirley Cook, tried to convince me to attend Swanwick Writers’ Summer School.

Patricia celebrates her debut novel, House of Grace.

Although I loved the sound of joining them, I dismissed it due to the long train journey and a connection change at London. In 2016, they tried to persuade me again and suggested I enter a poem to the annual writing competition to try and win a place. I sent in a poem leaving fate to decide whether I should go to Swanwick or not. However once Corinne and Shirley booked their places, their excitement was too infectious and before I knew it my place in Lakeside accommodation was secure.

Once my booking was made I set about requesting my dietary needs and Pauline Mason the secretary was more than helpful. I was ready for my journey. I’d booked the early coach from Derby Station but unfortunately my train let me down. Once again Pauline looked after me and booked me onto the later one. Thankfully I arrived in time and was met by the lovely Lesley Deschner. Both Pauline and Lesley are great ambassadors for Swanwick.

Unfortunately, I missed the welcome meeting for White Badgers but my writer friend, Corinne Lawrence was waiting to greet me. Both Shirley and Corinne looked out for me all week. It was fabulous to finally meet these two lovely ladies after sharing work over the previous two years.

At Swanwick I was never lonely. I was concerned that I may find it a bit intimidating with around two to three hundred delegates but in fact it still has that intimate family feel and sense of belonging. Everyone is so friendly and when it’s time to go home, no one wants to leave.

Ahead of the course, a brochure is sent out that contains the week’s programme with so many fantastic courses offering choice and variety, something for everyone. In fact it’s hard to choose a favourite. Existing Swanwickers love this moment and get out their highlighting pens with excitement. For my specialist course, I chose Alison Chisholm’s poetry and booked a one to one session for feedback. I recommend this to anyone who writes poetry.

While at Swanwick, for the first time ever, I took part in an Open Mic and again those experienced in Open Mics supported and gave me confidence. The fancy dress disco isn’t to be missed either. Last year’s theme was ‘Heroes’. I went as Cleopatra and loved dressing up. This year the theme was The Wild West.

Food is included with the accommodation booking: breakfast, lunch and dinner along with coffee and tea throughout the day. It’s a real treat if you’re the person at home who does all the cooking. Mealtimes are another chance to meet new faces and chat about writing. I stayed in Lakeside and found the rooms a decent size with reliable wifi and I had a comfortable double bed. I was only a few yards away from the lovely lakes. Lakes are one of my favourite places to be and where I find most of my writing inspiration.

This year I managed to recruit a couple of my own writer friends as white badgers. I looked forward to becoming a trailblazer and I was ready to make the newcomers feel at home in this beautiful Derbyshire setting where writers come together.

And let’s not forget the famous Swanwick bookshop. I was inspired by the volume of books written by Swanwick writers. Those who had gone down the Indie route were more than happy to advise how they went about self-publishing. It was this encouragement that pushed me to come home and get my act together with my debut novel, a family saga, House of Grace.

My second visit to Swanwick in 2017 was even better than my first. This was helped by meeting an online writer friend for the first time after working together for over six years. Swanwick is a place you meet old friends and new, have fun, learn, grow in confidence and do as little or as much as you like. You will hear people talk about the Swanwick Magic, they are not wrong.

I managed to release my novel in March 2017 and I was proud to see it in the Swanwick book room this year amongst those of other Swanwick authors. You never know, by 2018 I may have two novels in there.

You can find Patricia on Facebook and Twitter. Alternatively, her online home is here.

 

 

 

 

More Swanwick Memories: Jennifer Wilson

Continuing the theme of sharing stories from my favourite writing event of the year, I am joined today by Jennifer C. Wilson.

I remember meeting her in 2016 when, as a fresh-faced White Badger, Jennifer told me her story over a drink in the bar. I am absolutely thrilled that she returned to Swanwick in 2017, and she has kindly agreed to tell us why.

Swanwick Memories, by Jennifer C. Wilson

I’d been thinking about going to Swanwick for about eight years. Each year since signing up for an adult education creative writing class back in Hexham, I’d download the programme and even pick out the courses I’d go along to, and yet, never quite got as far as booking. Now, I know that being published isn’t even remotely hinted at as being a requirement to go to Swanwick, but after my debut novel came out in October 2015, I decided that I had finally ‘earned my place’, and in January 2016, finally went ahead and booked up. I am so glad I did.

With my usual lack of punctuality, I got to Derby station three hours before the coach to Swanwick was due, and still remember the blind fear on receiving the email advising that the bus was now going to be round the back of the station, not the front, and “to let people know” if we saw them at the station. Cue a very awkward half hour trying to work out who might be going to Swanwick, and who might just think I was weird for approaching them and talking about buses… Luckily, I found some fellow Swanwickers, and next thing I know, we’re nattering over a cuppa in the Pumpkin Café. Not only did they show me where the bus was, I was also escorted to the Lakeside Reception, shown how to find my room, then taken back across to the main house to find where the other White Badgers were being welcomed with a (by now much-welcomed) glass of wine.

The rumours were true then – Swanwick really was full of friendly, helpful people. Less than an hour after arriving, I definitely felt I belonged.

That feeling didn’t leave me throughout the week, as I met friends I’m still happy to be in touch with (and already looking forward to seeing them again in August 2018!), and enjoyed even the passing five minute conversations which seemed to happen every time you looked slightly confused or lost.

As for the courses and talks – I came away from each and every one feeling so inspired. Either to try something new, with a new idea to play with, or an increased understanding in how to improve what I was already working on. For my first year, I chose ‘creative non-fiction’ as my specialist course for the week, and have since produced a book proposal which I intend to keep working on, and thanks to Sue Moorcroft and Michael Jecks’ courses, the manuscript for my second novel felt so much tighter and improved, ready for submission. In my second year, I returned to Sue’s course, this time on popular fiction, and also enjoyed this blog owner’s fun and informative course on writing intimate scenes.

I think the biggest thing about Swanwick though is simply spending a whole week in the company of other writers. I’m lucky that my friends and family are really supportive of my writing, but there’s a limit to how much even the most supportive person can take! At Swanwick, everyone is more than happy to discuss (at length) the books they love and loathe, the writing techniques they use, and how they are getting on (or otherwise) with their latest project. I got as much from chatting over lunch and in the bar after workshops as I did from the courses themselves. The subsequent online chatter and support via the Facebook group is great too, keeping the community spirit going throughout the rest of the year.

After booking for August 2017, I had started thinking I would skip a year, try somewhere new, do something different. I won’t be. This year, bringing two writing friends along made the whole thing feel even more like a community, and by Sunday lunchtime, we’d agreed that it could become ‘our annual thing’. Seeing them be as excited as I had been last year was just brilliant. I even volunteered with one of the open-mic nights, so felt even more a part of things.

Yes, I’ve come away exhausted again, but hey, at least we have Saturday and Sunday to catch up on all that sleep we miss when our brains are too busy plotting…

About Jennifer

Jennifer is a marine biologist by training, who spent much of her childhood stalking Mary, Queen of Scots (initially accidentally, but then with intention). She completed her BSc and MSc at the University of Hull, and has worked as a marine environmental consultant since graduating. Enrolling on an adult education workshop on her return to the north-east reignited Jennifer’s pastime of creative writing, and she has been filling notebooks ever since. In 2014, Jennifer won the Story Tyne short story competition, and also continues to develop her poetic voice, reading at a number of events, and with several pieces available online. She is also part of The Next Page, running workshops and other literary events in North Tyneside.

Jennifer’s debut novel, Kindred Spirits: Tower of London, was released by Crooked Cat Books in October 2015, and Kindred Spirits: Royal Mile was released in June 2017. She can be found online at her blog, on Twitter and Facebook, as well as at The Next Page’s blog. She’s currently working on her first self-published effort, a timeslip romance featuring Richard III (of course).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yummy School Project!

Many years ago, as I was nearing the end of sixth form and thinking about university, I acquired a penpal from France.
Claire lived in Brittany with her mother, father and sister. As teenage girls do, we chatted mainly about our respective school lives and our hopes and dreams for the future.
So much deliciousness!
Fast forward twenty-odd years. The magic of Facebook has kept our friendship alive, although the tone has changed somewhat. Nowadays we discuss the impact of Brexit and whether or not I should move to France!
Claire is now married with two children, living near Paris and teaching English at this school. She also adores chocolate. Or, more appropriately, her students do.
It was this love of chocolate which fuelled Claire’s imagination to undertake an unusual school project –  to create a recipe book, in English, written entirely by her students.

Ah…. Chocolate! One of my favourite topics, as my ample hips will testify.

Imagine, then, if you will, what a delight it was when Claire asked me to help with the translation of her students’ recipes into English.

And what a wonderful surprise when, some months later, I received a copy of a book containing said recipes in the post. It even has my name in the back. (Sadly, this book is not available on Amazon. Boo hiss!)

On that note, I’m off to make some brownies. Bon appetit!

To Walk Invisible: a Tribute to a Yorkshire family

Goodness! If you want heart-wrenching drama, you need look no further than the North York moors. Last night I watched To Walk Invisible, a BBC dramatisation of the life of the Bronte sisters.

To my shame, although both Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are two of my most-loved ‘classic’ novels, I must confess I knew little of the struggles of their respective authors’ domestic lives.

I was introduced to these classic novels partly by my mother, but also due to reading lists for English Literature classes at school. I read Jane Austen many years ago (during my school days, in fact) and her novels enjoy legendary status across the world, even today. But she produced stories that examine the quest for a suitable matrimonial match among the genteel English society into which she was born. They are hardly life or death situations, per se.

Austen couldn’t possibly have imagined the frustration of three sisters, united only in their despair for their wayward brother as he succumbed to his demons doing his level best to tear the family apart as he did so.

Few women back then published novels. George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), writing around the same time, wrote under a pseudonym in order to be taken seriously. The Brontes were a well-educated family for their position, being daughters of the widowed Reverend Bronte, but their education appears to have been somewhat haphazard, starting off at a school, but then being removed by their father and taught a little at home after their two older sisters (Maria and Elizabeth) had contracted tuberculosis.

It occurs to me that perhaps it is only in enduring the seemingly bottomless pit of such torment that we, as writers, find tales of such extraordinary passion. They do say that it is only by knowing sadness that we can identify happiness when we find such a thing.

I shall ponder on this thought as I begin compiling my Must Do list for 2017.

Item #1 – a visit to Haworth!

The Wild Writer Within Us All

So, here it is. A brief account of my final writing-related travel experience of 2016:

I don’t visit France anything like as often as I would like, and it’s been many years since I was in the south. Let me assure you, I will certainly not be waiting as long until my next visit.

I had been looking forward to a retreat with fellow Swanwick devotee Bridget Holding at her Wild Words nature retreat ever since the moment I returned from Swanwick back in August. (Goodness, that feels like such a long time ago!)

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The setting sun casts its pink glow on Bugarach Peak.
 Day One consisted of meeting and greeting my fellow retreaters, Susan and Catherine, and settling down to a delicious banquet, cooked by chef and host, Sander, and washed down by generous amounts of local wine, which is included in the price of your stay at the Le Presbytere.

The garden is beautifully well-kept by his partner Rommie, and they grow most of their own fruit and vegetables which are beautifully presented at every meal.

A hearty and healthy breakfast in the morning preceded some time spent with Bridget who gave us exercises to flex our writing muscles. In the afternoon, we went for a walk to the nearby lake, which sits directly at the foot of Bugarach Peak.

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I can vouch for this lake being as fresh and exciting to swim in as it looks. Honestly!

Braving the coolness of the water, we went for a dip. This was my first time swimming in ‘open water’ in recent years and it really was exhilarating. It was nice to emerge on the bank not smelling of chlorine and being able to bask in late afternoon sunshine to dry off. I might see if I can find anywhere local where I can relive the experience, albeit probably next Spring/Summer now!

On the Wednesday we visited a magical waterfall and sat around discussing movement, writing poetic descriptions of the thunderous phenomenon. I spent some time pondering our natural world, and how we fail to acknowledge so much of it in our day to day lives; the others decided to go for another open water dip. By all accounts it was way colder than the lake, so I was pleased to transfer to the thermal pond we found a little way down the road!

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Lunch at Le Presbytere is usually of the takeaway variety, but since we stayed close to the house most days, Sander concocted some terrific salads for us to enjoy.

Thursday’s weather was a challenge. The forecast said rain, and my injured foot told me a long walk would be unwise, so after a tremendous session on plotting and structure in the morning, I retreated to the solace of my room while the others went off into the wild.

Just a few moments later, the sky darkened. It felt like the mountains were closing in on us, huddling in a rugby scrum with the village underneath. Thunder rolled in the distance, advancing like an angry army across the sky.

I went downstairs to see whether my fellow guests had returned but instead found the pets unsettled so I chose to stay with them while the storm did battle above. As torrential rain battered the landscape and wild flashes of lightning lit up the sky we sat indoors, dry and safe. It must have looked strange. One human female, two dogs and two cats all trying to fit onto a sofa!

The ladies had a truly wild experience though. They eventually came back, soaked to the skin and having tramped through hailstone showers while trying not to get stuck underneath trees!

I was really sad to leave on Friday, especially since Susan and Catherine were staying another day, but unfortunately the flights were not favourable, and I had a date with Margaret Atwood at the RST to keep the following morning, so I had to say my goodbyes.

It’s been an amazing week in the Corbieres mountains at the foothills of the Pyrenees. I will certainly be back this way some time soon…

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Look at the laughter in our eyes! From L to R: Susan, Rommie, Sander, Catherine, me. Thanks to Bridget for taking this photo.

 

 

 

 

 

First Drafts – Getting The Story On The Page

2016 has been a great summer for writing activities, and it’s far from over.

Following the Dublin Writers’ Conference in June, I spent a blissful week at Swanwick in August and, in October, I shall be jetting off to the South of France for a retreat with the lovely Bridget Holding and her Wild Words, which I’m really looking forward to.

All in all, it promises to be a wholly creative period for me, especially as I am working on completing the next in the Lost Souls series, The Plain Truth.

But, here’s the thing. It’s sooooooo hard!

You see, in the short space of time that I have been writing (about four years), I have discovered something really important about the way I write books:

I’m really good at starting things, but I’m really rubbish at finishing them.

In fact, this applies to all sorts of things in my life, not just writing. So, my one single goal for 2016 has been to concentrate on finding ways of being able to finish my books, in the hopes that I can transfer these skills to other areas of my life too.

I was thrilled, therefore to meet Sheila Bugler in Dublin and attend her course on Getting Your First Draft Done.

I learned an enormous amount from this course. Two things in particular stood out for me:

Firstly, I don’t usually set myself a daily word count. This is probably because I don’t want the feeling of failure if I don’t hit it every day. To rectify this, Sheila gave us some simple exercises to help hit the count. I am now regularly hitting at least 500 words a day, and around 1500 at the weekends. Yay!

The second piece of advice I took away was to try not to listen to my inner editor. This is really difficult for me (especially as I am now a trained editor and proofreader!) so I decided to choose a different place in the house to do my writing, completely separate from my editing. Anywhere, in fact, other than my desk. Sometimes I’m sitting up in bed, sometimes I’m on the sofa. Last night, I scribbled a few sentences while perched on the kitchen table.

Fantastic, I thought. Armed with this new advice, I trotted off to Swanwick to see if I could learn more. One of the courses I had in mind was delivered by Michael Jecks and entitled Plotting and Stratagems.

From Michael’s course, I learned that my usual reason for getting stuck halfway into a novel is that I don’t plan well enough, so I took away some guidance for planning chapters. Hopefully, this will help with the problem as I make my way through book two in the Lost Souls series.

Speaking of which, I am eagerly anticipating my trip to South West France and being on retreat. I shall only be there for 3 full days, but I often surprise myself how much I can get through in a short space of time when I really get my head down and write with no distractions.

More news soon! Au revoir…

Local SfEP Meetup – South Warwickshire Editors and Proofreaders

My journey into the ‘Dark Side’ continues!

I’m joking, of course. Editing other authors’ work is giving me valuable insight into how to improve my own writing. I am also finding that I am in a position to be able to advise fellow indie authors about their work, having been in their position.

Being the sociable creature I am, I was thrilled to learn that there is a local South Warwickshire group of SfEP members, so I went along to their bi-monthly meeting to say hello and find out more.

It turns out that there are other editors who walk the line between editing and writing, in fact it turns out that some of us have mutual friends in people I have met through going to Swanwick.

I look forward to meeting up regularly with this bunch, and sharing tips and stories. Watch this space!

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Chillin’ and chattin’ at The Lounge, Leamington Spa

 

Swanwick 2016 – The Magic Continues…

The Hayes Conference Centre, Swanwick, Derbyshire
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Communal dining room at the Hayes. Picture courtesy of Geoff Parkes (far left in the photo).

Sadly, I didn’t get to go to the Swanwick Writers’ Summer School in 2015. I had a very sick cat at home and no idea how long she had left on this mortal plane so, as heartbreaking as it was, I decided to stay with her in her final weeks. It was definitely the right decision.

No such emotional trauma this year, thankfully, and I couldn’t wait to bundle up the car and head off to Derbyshire for another memorable week of friendship nurturing and raucous laughter. I wasn’t disappointed.

After the initial settling in period, it was time to get my books across to the book room. This year was the first time I had my own book to sell, which was wonderful experience. So, too, for Mark Iveson and his non-fiction book Cursed Horror Stars.

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Mark Iveson and me, proudly displaying our own published books in the Swanwick Book Room for the first time.

The first full day saw me sat in a fascinating specialist course on Character Psychology with Steve Hartley. Such a great course, packed with interesting material for creating interesting characters for our stories.

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The incorrigible Phil Collins appreciating how I managed to pour myself into a corset!

Monday evening during Swanwick week features the infamous Fancy Dress Disco.

I do like this photo of me with dear friend Phil Collins. I can’t remember how much I had to drink by this point. I certainly wasn’t sober!

This year’s theme was Heroes and Villains. I chose Maleficent (any excuse to get out my corset); Phil’s pirate outfit turned a few heads too!

 

I set out to make sure I attended short courses which I felt would be of direct use to my own writing experience. This year, Michael Jecks gave phenomenal instructions about plotting and tips for bulldozing through writers’ block. I came away refreshed with lots of ideas for my novel.

Similarly, lovely Sue Moorcroft‘s course gave invaluable insight into the finer points of writing fiction. All in all, it was an exhilarating, if not exhausting, week of learning.

On the last day, after the AGM and the raffle to win a free place at Swanwick the following year, everyone disappeared back to their rooms to dress up for the Dregs Party. It’s a great excuse to bring out those cocktail dresses and a few of the guys even brought their tuxedos for the occasion.

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Dregs Party on the hallowed Swanwick lawn. Thankfully, the rain stayed away!

Some exciting things to note for me personally this year: I made my acting debut! A very small part during the renowned Page to Stage extravaganza was quickly followed on the last night by the Final Night Pantomime.

Written by Simon Hall, The Battle of Writers’ Block tells a humorous tale of an aspiring but self-conscious writer, Trevor, who is trying to write a novel. Haunted by the twin sisters of Doubt and Success, he is persuaded to take a trip to Swanwick Writers’ Summer School, where he receives the inspiration to finish his story. Lots of gags and a healthy dose of innuendo had the audience howling with laughter, thankfully!

Cast of this year’s pantomime, The Battle of Writers’ Block, written by Simon Hall. L-R: Lesley Deschener, Phil Collins, me, Simon Hall, Cathy Grimmer, Marion Hough, John Lamont. Photo courtesy of Louise Cahill.

Finally, the opportunity came along for me to play a part in helping the school. The archivist was wanting to step down, and so a vacancy popped up for someone organised who can help collate all the various documents that Swanwick has amassed over its 68-year history. I am looking forward to taking on this challenge and I’m hoping to start getting it into some kind of electronic format soon.

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Chatting on the lawn. Picture courtesy of Geoff Parkes

All in all, it was another fantastic Swanwick experience, full of friendships. Special thank you to Geoff Parkes for the use of a couple of his photographs in this post.

Hope to see you all next year for another week of writing mayhem!

A New Chapter Begins…

 

“If you don’t think you can afford to hire an editor, try not hiring one!”

Catherine Ryan Howard, Dublin Writers’ Conference, June 2015


Since I began writing just four years ago, I have been lucky to have received so much help from a wide variety of writing contacts. I have been blessed to have such a great support network – writers are such a wonderful community! So I decided I wanted to give something back and thus help others on their respective writing journeys in return.

For some considerable time in my day job I have been the go-to person for anyone in my team who wants an email spell-checked. At one point there were jokes about whether I should have been a schoolteacher.

Like most of you, I have seen some of the best and worst of self-published fiction out there for purchase on Amazon and other outlets. In my opinion, there is nothing that does more harm to the cause of independent authors than seeing work which is poorly edited or, in some cases, not edited at all.

I am passionate about us indies being professional in our approach. It is so simple now to produce a book of high quality, almost parallel to that of the big publishing houses.

After some thinking and deliberation, and then some more thinking, EMH Editorial Services was born!

I have now successfully completed two courses with the Society for Editors & Proofreaders: Introduction to Proofreading and Introduction to Copy-Editing. Next on my list is Fiction Editing and I am planning to brush up on my grammar too, as well as investing in some serious textbooks.

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Close followers of my Facebook author page will have noticed I have created a new page, EMH Editorial Services where you can post any enquiries you may have.

You can also contact me via a new email address: EMHEditorial@gmail.com.

I am fully aware of the need to keep the costs of such services to a minimum for indie authors, while still delivering a quality service and helping you make your book the best it possibly can be.

If you have a book which is nearing completion, do give me a shout. Let’s discuss what is the best for your book.

For new clients, I will ask for a 2,000 word sample from somewhere in the middle of your book and I will conduct this FOR FREE. This is for two reasons:

  • It helps you to see what I can bring to your book in terms of polishing, before you have to commit to making any payment;
  • It helps me assess the level of work required for your book, so I can give you a realistic quotation for the whole project.

So, what are you waiting for? Drop me a line…