Thursday, 11 December 2014

An update on the bizarre VAT regulations that are putting UK micro-businesses out of business

For the story so far, see the previous blog HERE.

The latest government statement gives a clearer view of the situation than any previous official document. The link to it is below*. Change.org has a useful overview HERE and I have several points to make about it myself:

My own view remains that this piece of legislation was reasonable in its aims to curb VAT avoidance on the part of big business but that the people who developed it forgot or disregarded the effect on micro-businesses. Now this has been pointed out, instead of repairing the damage, they have made it worse. 

The government statement* differs in some key respects from the official view being given only a few days ago. The position on VAT registration is at odds with the version I was given when I spoke directly to the UK VAT Office a couple of weeks ago.

Why would this be? Either the people I spoke to were ignorant of the facts or the position has changed.
The officials in the key office ignorant of the facts? It seems unlikely given the reports of the number of queries they have had to field since news of the regulations broke in late summer / autumn.
So I surmise that the position has changed. 

It looks to me as though the realisation has finally hit home that something dire is going to happen to micro-businesses and someone has taken some action.

The reaction should have been to put in place the measures to protect micro-businesses (the measures that are already in place in respect of current VAT regulations). Instead, the move is to make a minor amendment with respect to UK VAT registration and then to spell out in excruciating detail how and why micro-businesses may as well shut up shop.

The minor amendment is to allow micro-businesses to become VAT registered in the UK and provide nil returns whilst they remain below the VAT exemption threshold. This gives them access to the one stop shop provision for EU VAT.

This looks like a step in the right direction but it does NOT solve the problem. It does not even come close.

Every affected micro-business, sole trader, small cooperative, voluntary organisation must take on the burden of VAT registration. Being able to provide nil returns on UK VAT does not equal zero bureaucracy. And that’s the easy bit. Here’s a less easy bit:

Every sale into another EU country must be identifiable. That’s easy if you’re an Amazon or a Google, you have the resources to run country-specific sites. Some micro-businesses might be able to do this, many won’t. But let’s assume the sale can be identified, then what? The VAT can’t have been added to the original invoice unless the system is sophisticated enough to determine country of origin and current VAT rates at point of sale. I could go into the details of why that is technically infeasible for a micro-business, but won't. The result is that either the VAT comes out of the micro-business’s pocket or the micro-business puts prices up across the board to cover 27 potentially different VAT rates.

The choice is stark: make yourself less profitable or less competitive.

It is the nature of micro-business that when it is micro it operates on a shoestring – there isn’t the slack to pay all its customers’ VAT bills or to make itself less competitive by across-the-board price rises. The Amazons, Googles, Apples, etc of this world couldn’t have done it when they were micro-businesses.

Why is our own government pulling up the drawbridge to deny current entrepreneurs the means to make their mark in the digital world?

You might be thinking that the pricing issue though tough, is surmountable. And you might be right. So now for the hard bits.

For every sale to someone in an EU country, a micro-business must keep two non-conflicting pieces of evidence of the buyer’s location. That’s EVERY sale. The evidence MUST show the buyer’s country.
Let's work this one through: a small cooperative sells MP3 downloads to raise money for its cause. It uses an automated online ecommerce system because otherwise it would be unable to afford to operate. A buyer in Spain pays for and downloads a single product for 99p. There are alternatives here so let’s unpack them.

  1. The transaction is done via an online payment system with only an email address. The cooperative has no idea they have made a sale to Spain. For this single 99p sale, they have just become guilty of a criminal act and could be prosecuted.
  2. The transaction request comes with an address on it (evidence 1) and when payment comes through it too has an address on it (evidence 2). The cooperative won’t have the resource to set up sophisticated accounting structures so if and when asked for this evidence by the VAT Office, they must rely on being able to find it. That’s OK, electronic data is easy to find. Well, as long as the cooperative has invested in robust backup systems in case of technical failure.
  3. Same scenario as above but the country of origin on evidence 1 is different from that of evidence 2. In this case the seller “must contact the customer and ask them to reconcile the discrepancy between the two sources of information” I’m quoting HMRC here and I am imagining the UK sole trader making contact with the Spanish customer thanking them for the 99p sale and asking them to reconcile the discrepancy between the two sources of information. This is the sort of contact from seller to buyer that may as well be titled ‘Don’t shop with us again’.

Some of this evidence by way of billing addresses and so on might be gathered fairly painlessly. However, in order to comply with the law, every transaction must be checked to see if it is a) from one of the affected countries and b) to see if the evidence of origin matches. That in itself is a huge administrative burden.

Can’t this be done automatically? Yes, if you have the resources of an Amazon or Google or Apple. If you’re a sole trader then you will have to devote significant time to this that would otherwise be spent building your business. Your business will suffer for it.

And it doesn’t stop there.

The requirement to keep hold of these pieces of evidence puts you under the Data Protection regulations. “You will need to register as a data controller” – quoting HMRC again. This requires an annual fee – not a huge one but yet another cost on top of the extra red-tape you are now having to resource for every sale – and puts you and your business under the extra burden of the bureaucracy that goes with data protection registration.

In my view it is foolish to advise anyone to rush into VAT registration without being fully aware of the administrative burden or potential legal pitfalls – there are many. As a micro-business the effort required to ensure full compliance is likely to be so detrimental to the business as a whole that it becomes pointless. Being a VAT registered business is burdensome enough; being a VAT registered bankrupt business is even worse. The same caveats apply to registration under Data Protection.

*This is the latest from HMRC






Monday, 8 December 2014

Government minister advocates law breaking but washes his hands of the consequences (updated)

A government minister has just given micro-businesses some stark alternatives.
Put simply Vince Cable provides this advice to budding entrepreneurs:
1. You should put yourselves in a position where you will have no option but to break the law – but don’t worry because the bureaucratic burden of doing this will put you out of business before you go to jail (probably). If you do end up in jail don't look for sympathy.
2. You could choose to top-slice your income and donate it to a big company – this might also put you out of business and will certainly slow your growth as a company
3. Why not simply go out of business – see it as cutting out the middle man, bow to the inevitable and just give up now
4. There isn’t a 4 - that's it.
I am so appalled by Vince Cable’s response to the petition on the new EU VAT regulations that I have written my own response to his response. Here is an extract:
In one part of his response, Vince Cable says of micro-businesses, sole-traders, voluntary cooperatives etc: “... if they can separate out their cross-border business from their domestic they will only have to register for VAT on their cross-border sales”.
My response: That statement is breathtakingly disingenuous. “they will only have to register for VAT on their cross-border sales” – Let’s unpack that. There is no micro-business anywhere that can realistically take on VAT registration in 27 EU countries. I would go as far as to say it borders on negligence to imply that they should try. 27 potentially different VAT rates, returns obligations, and languages? Just for avoidance of doubt, Cable's words are slightly ambiguous but HMRC's own documents make clear that this is what is meant.
The reality (as Vince Cable must be aware) is that even large businesses don’t take on this task. The UK government has set up a ‘one-stop-shop’ so that all EU VAT can be dealt with through the UK VAT office. Here’s the stinger. If you are not UK VAT registered, then you can’t use the one-stop-shop and must go it alone.
So why can’t any affected business simply register for UK VAT? Of course they can, BUT it has long been recognised that the bureaucratic burden of VAT is impossible for micro-businesses and simply drives them out of business before they can grow. That is why we have a VAT exemption threshold. 
Let me repeat that: That is why we have a VAT exemption threshold. 
This is to allow micro-businesses to grow to the size where they have the resources to cope with VAT registration and all that it implies. The EU VAT burden (with its potentially 27 different systems) is way more burdensome than the UK system which is recognised to be too much of a burden for a micro-business.
I really struggle to believe that a government minister seriously suggests that a sole trader, tiny cooperative venture or other micro-business “register for VAT on their cross-border sales”. That is tantamount to inciting law-breaking. It is asking a business to put itself under the jurisdiction of a set of laws it has no means to adhere to. It is grossly negligent and totally unrealistic. The reality of Vince Cable’s statement is that small businesses will be forced to cease trading.
And here is what Vince Cable’s full response SHOULD have said:
The purpose of these new regulations was to prevent huge companies like eBay, Amazon and Google from sidestepping their VAT commitments by nominally locating an office in the EU country with the lowest VAT rate. Somewhere along the way we forgot about the effect on micro-businesses. The intention of the law was not to crush entrepreneurship and close all our micro-businesses thus throwing a whole new swathe of people out of work. Sorry, we got this part wrong. Of course there should be a VAT exemption threshold and we will work to get this sorted as quickly as possible.
And here is the ACTUAL response from Vince Cable in full, interleaved with my admittedly heat-of-the-moment comments.
VC says: “The changes to VAT on digital products is not new or sudden - the change was agreed in 2008 and we've done a lot to communicate it to businesses.
The reality: The majority of micro-businesses were unaware of the change before late 2014. HMRC itself admits it has only communicated to some already VAT-registered companies.
Micro businesses have no means of staying in the loop for this kind of thing. They cannot all afford the subscriptions to maintain membership of professional societies. Indeed even if they did this, it is uncertain they would be any better informed. A search of the websites of such organisations shows almost no mention of the new VAT regulations. The only exception I could find was TIGA who have been trying to put the case for video games businesses. The many cooperatives, voluntary groups etc who rely on raising funds through digital sales have no means to keep themselves up to date on the minutiae of the masses of legislation that rolls through the various government departments. Many of these have already given up and stopped trading. In the current economic climate that is very bad news.
[update: since writing this blog HMRC has said that the change was always intended for all businesses including micro. In my view that statement is demonstrably untrue - see later update]
VC says: “Regardless, the majority of UK micro-businesses will not be affected.
The reality: ALL micro-businesses who sell digital products online WILL be affected. 
It won’t matter that their market isn’t in one of the affected countries. Online means their products are available in those countries and the onus is on them to deal with any such sales. 
This means significant changes to ecommerce systems to identify country of origin and block sales (that on its own is pretty bad news in the current economic climate). 
[update: HMRC has given its opinion on businesses blocking sales to EU countries. Apparently this will fall foul of anti-discrimination laws]
And if you think an alternative is to carry on with such sales and deal with the VAT, think again. Micro-businesses do not have the resources of the Amazons and eBays of this world. Imagine a sole-trader or voluntary cooperative group registering for VAT in 27 different countries? Different reporting regulations, returns to be made several times a year, language problems to overcome, exchange rate issues to be worked through, two items of “non-conflicting evidence” to be obtained 'prior to' every transaction etc. For a sole trader or tiny business that’s struggling to establish itself. I don’t think so. 
OK, so don’t bother registering until you make a sale (I can almost hear the glib politician saying it). This is an online world. So you as a sole trader make a sale to a European country via your online store. Have you already made allowance for the VAT? If so, you’ve had to invest in significant amendments to your online store to allow it to take VAT, further than that, it needs to make the calculation depending on the country of the buyer, so that’s 27 different rates potentially (oh and you’d better be sure you can keep up with any changes in any of those countries, because once registered the onus is on you). Oh and you can’t even put VAT on your invoices if you’re not registered. And how about those pieces of evidence of the buyer’s location you will be legally obliged to obtain ‘prior to’ each transaction? 
I’m not going further down this route but believe me, I could go on for pages showing you how every route leads off a cliff. Even the ‘stop selling into Europe’ alternative is fraught with technical challenges.
It really does not take much thought to realise that having to cater for VAT in potentially different incarnations in 27 countries is something well outside the resources of any but the bigger companies. No sole trader or micro-business should ever be advised to register for VAT in another country. The bureaucratic red tape would bring down the business.
VC says: “Here's a breakdown of how the changes affect micro-businesses:
Micro-businesses that trade only in the UK - and never sell to the EU - won't have to do anything. They won't have to register for VAT in 2015.
The reality: Sure. Companies like small greengrocers, corner shops etc won’t be affected. The guys working on the latest NASA space probe won’t be much bothered by it either. We could make obvious but irrelevant statements about this all day, but let’s not. People’s livelihoods are at stake here.
VC says: “Micro-businesses that do sell to other countries in the EU but only do so through marketplaces like an app store also won’t have to register for VAT. It's up to the operator of the marketplace to account for VAT charges.
The reality: Again, yes, as long as the micro-businesses are working through someone else – the someone else will be mainly the huge companies like eBay, Amazon and Google – they have the resources to cope with the changes. But this means that these micro-businesses will be unable to earn as much because the big companies will take their cut. Any entrepreneur who wants to go it alone and try to build a business online – forget it.
VC says: “Micro-businesses that trade to the UK and to the EU will have to register for VAT.”
The reality: anyone selling digital products online is caught in this. Even if their market is not the EU. Micro-businesses don’t have the resources to run multi-sites like Amazon and eBay. If they sell a single product into an EU market they are caught in the trap.
VC says: “But if they can separate out their cross-border business from their domestic they will only have to register for VAT on their cross-border sales.
I addressed this breathtakingly disingenuous statement in the extract at the top of the blog. There is an update.
[update: since the start of mass protests from small businesses late in 2014, HMRC has said it will now allow micro businesses to register for UK VAT and provide zero returns, thus giving them access to the EU VAT one-stop-shop. This has been advertised as a "solution". It is not. It still lays the bureaucratic burden of VAT returns onto businesses that do not have the resource to cater for them. Let me repeat one more time: That is why we have a VAT exemption threshold. 

This move is a clear demonstration of the lies in the statements that "the change was agreed in 2008 and we've done a lot to communicate it to businesses" and that the inclusion of micro business was not an oversight. Had micro business been thought of from the start, this move would have been thought about in 2008 or earlier, not in late 2014. Had it been thought about in 2008 or earlier there would have been time to see that it is no solution to the problem of destroying small businesses.

Responses since late 2014 have brought to light that very many VAT registered businesses had no idea of the forthcoming changes and neither had their accountants, legal advisers or professional bodies. The only people who seem to have been kept in the loop are the big businesses who stand to gain a lot by mopping up the customers and sales that small businesses will no longer be able cater for legally.]
VC says: “UK sales will be unaffected.”
The reality: online sales don’t take account of borders. The sorts of ecommerce systems used by micro-businesses don’t have the sophistication of systems used by huge multinationals. The reality is that if a trader puts something on their ecommerce platform, it will be accessible across borders. What is the small trader to do? Manual intervention in all online sales is a theoretical solution (because automatic intervention to cater for the possibility of 27 different VAT regimes is a technical add-on way beyond the purse of a micro-business). I say a ‘theoretical’ solution because on the whole the only way a micro-business can realistically run an online operation with any hope of eventually growing to become a big business is to have its online sales automated. Result again is loss of business and loss of revenue. 
More businesses go under. Fewer businesses grow from micro to small to medium to large. The knock-on effect is fewer jobs and more people thrown out of work. And all because the politicians made a mistake that they now  refuse to acknowledge. The VAT exemption threshold would sort it all out at a stroke.
VC concludes by saying: “Hope that helps clear up the change.
I am unable to respond to that without profanity.


Sunday, 7 December 2014

Public and private investigations clash - eventually!

The new book Buried Deep sees the light of day and not before time. This one has had a chequered history as related in the annals of Hornsea Writers, but it's here now.





Surrey-based Damien Marks has no idea that his wife has employed a private investigator to check up on him. And she has no idea that a police team in York sees his inexplicable behaviour in a far more sinister light and have him in their cross hairs as the prime suspect in a murder enquiry.
Detective Superintendent Martyn Webber is appalled to find private investigator Annie Raymond slap bang in the middle of his case. Not that he takes her seriously, but he has his own secrets that he can’t afford for her to find. Then the death of a peripheral witness turns the investigation on its head.
Meanwhile, oblivious to the entanglements of the adult world around her, schoolgirl Olivia Lamb hugs to herself the secret of the ghost hands she saw in the surging waters of a York flash flood.
eBook available from:

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Elite: Dangerous And Here the Wheel by John Harper

Elite: And Here The WheelElite: And Here The Wheel by John Harper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an action adventure played out across a wide canvass. Set in the world of Elite: Dangerous it’s the 5th of Fantastic Books Publishing’s Elite offerings that I’ve read. Having been bowled over by the first four, I set out with some trepidation into this one, knowing it was going to be different – every book has had a completely different structure and feel – but not sure if it would be as good as the rest. Well, I’m so pleased to be able to say that it is! It’s completely different in setting, tone and pace, but like the others, a delight to read. And Here the Wheel follows the trials and tribulations of a famed pirate, but nothing, including his fame, is quite what it seems. Throwing the pirate into an enforced and uneasy alliance with a woman who hates all pirates with a passion is a useful trick to generate tension and drama – and tension and drama abound in this action-packed space adventure – but the conclusion when it arrives is satisfyingly unpredictable.

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Thursday, 28 August 2014

Elite:Dangerous Tales from the Frontier by 15 authors

Elite Dangerous: Tales from the FrontierElite Dangerous: Tales from the Frontier by Chris Booker and 14 others
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the best of the best – from serious nail-biting drama to laugh-out-loud funny

Where to start reviewing this one? At the beginning I guess. The book opens with Crossing the Line by Chris Booker, a very human story of small time traders wanting to break into the big time. A real page turner to draw you into the anthology.

Next in line comes The Comet’s Trail by Darren Grey, an equally good read about a space pilot bounty hunter with cerebral palsy, a rare condition in this future world. Seeing how a lifetime of having to fight for respect pushes her to seek the ultimate prize without hesitation really racks up the tension.

This is followed by A Question of Intelligence by Lisa Wolf. This is a very human story set in an extraordinary world where a daughter’s search for her father becomes a clash of cultures with political wrangling in danger of obscuring the real challenges: ones that mirror things we face right now in the real world.

We bounce out of this story with its cast of thousands, into The Easy Way Out by Ramon Marett, where we travel with a lone pilot. Ship critically damaged and failing as time passes. He needs a miracle. A real roller-coaster of a story.

Then on to The Maledict by Tim Gayda, an imaginative tale of panic around a fast-spreading plague, the rise of a sinister cult and one man’s single-minded determination to get to the truth, except that when he finds it, it doesn’t provide the simple solution he’d assumed.

This is followed by The Children of Zeus by Christopher Jarvis, an enthralling tale of two very different protagonists whose opposing philosophies are set to clash when they’re out at the edges of known space. Tension builds as it becomes clear what’s at stake.

Then a complete change in tempo and setting to Pinacotheca by Alexander G Saunders where a vast gallery of the universe’s most treasured art mysteriously vanishes. The story weaves beautifully evocative descriptions of this vast ship floating lost in space with a nail-biting narrative of the two traders who stumble upon it years later and unravel an incredible story.

Next we’re plunged back into the maelstrom of human emotion in Blood is Thicker by Ulla Susimetsä  where one woman’s thirst for vengeance blinds her to the impossibility of achieving her goal and the reader can only turn the pages with an ever-increasing sense of impending disaster.

This is beautifully mirrored by the next story, Beyond Civilisation by Marko Susimetsä which gives us another evocation of human emotion in a tale of power, disillusion, idealism and heroism around a half-forgotten settlement on the frontiers of known space.

After the roller-coaster of the previous duo, Cat’s Cradle by Rose Thurlbeck, is a perfect change of tempo; a gem of a story about a woman and her cat. But this is no ordinary woman. She pilots a starship and the cat goes with her.

The animal theme runs on into Nature’s Way by Gaz Bailey where we learn with resignation but without surprise that the trade in smuggled exotic wildlife still flourishes in the year 3300. The risks, however, have changed beyond recognition.

By this stage you will have forgotten that this whole anthology is in some senses a ‘book of the game’, because the prose will simply draw you into the vastness of the Elite universe, and captivate you with the stories of the people who live in it. But the next story swings close to that overall rationale. A Game of Death, by Allen L Farr, very cleverly interweaves the whole idea of computer gaming with life aboard an orbital scrap yard where family secrets are unexpectedly laid bare in a satisfyingly rounded tale.

Now we skip again from large cast to solo protagonist in Mission (almost) Completed by  Matthew D Benson. A commander returns from a successful mission but his life support systems are failing. As things become critical his hallucinations and flashbacks weave the story to its conclusion.

Then back at the edges of the known universe in Research Purposes by Fred Burbidge, salvage hunters discover a lost research facility, but they’re not the only ones with an eye on the hidden prize, which leads to an edge-of-seat adventure where death stalks them down the deserted corridors of the abandoned base.

The anthology ends (alas, alas, but it has to end) with the perfect story to round off such a choice collection. An Ode to Betty Cole by Nicholas Hansen is a wonderfully quirky and evocative mystery. Your senses will tingle with the crew of the ship as they receive a video transmission from the past.

The stories in this collection cover the gamut of human emotion; they range from serious nail-biting drama to laugh-out-loud funny. And as though to show this off as the best of the very best, every story is superbly illustrated by Arto Heikkinen.


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Saturday, 26 July 2014

What’s with the ‘difficult’ problem thing on Facebook?

OK, so what are these things all about? New age problems for a seriously dumbed down society or am I missing some clever irony? I’ve just seen another one. It says

‘Name a CITY that does not have the letter “A” in it. Bet you can’t.’ Someone has added ‘This is hard!’

As I read it I thought Hereford, Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool, Hull (or even Kingston-upon-Hull for the purists)... and wondered what the point was. Previous ones have been along the lines of ‘Bet you can’t say your own name without falling over backwards – this is hard!’


So I’m doing my own. Here we go



OK - go!


Thursday, 10 July 2014

THE SHORT SHARP FOCUSED PITCH

When I and my co-author launched our book The Writers’ Toolkit back in wheneveritwas, our publisher treated us to a frenetic 2-day launch event online. They canvassed for short submissions that we had to critique as part of the launch, using the pearls of wisdom we aimed to pass on as part of the toolkit.

I think we critiqued about 40 short pieces. It was a demanding, intense, constructive and enjoyable exercise. We were also asked to pass on some specific practical advice on writing and selling commercial fiction. We did this via articles, tutorials and discussions.

One of the tutorials was entitled: A MINI TUTORIAL - THE SHORT SHARP FOCUSED PITCH and this is reproduced below.

In the actual launch, this was published in three parts with people joining in over the course of the first day. You can see the interactive discussions by following the links given at the end of each section.

THE SHORT SHARP FOCUSED PITCH
PART I
The aim of this mini tutorial is to give you the tools to create a short, focused pitch for your commercial fiction novel.

Write down the following three things about your novel
1. The name of the main character.
2. This character's goal or objective.
3. A sticky situation in which this character finds him/herself.

Usually in commercial fiction there is a clearly identifiable main character, but there may be more than one. Pick one. The character you choose may have different goals at different points in the story. Note however that the main character usually has an overarching goal and this is the best one to pick. Likewise your character will go through several sticky situations as the story progresses. Pick one that really threatens the goal.

Example
1. Jack Smith.
2. To climb Mount Everest.
3. The summit is 20 minutes away but time is tight.

In the online tutorial, participants were asked to have a go at listing out these three elements for their own novel and saying why they picked each one. Those who wanted then posted their lists as comments on the tutorial itself and we commented on their choices. See these discussions HERE.

PART II
Add the following two elements to the list you created in part one.
4. Something or someone who stands in the way of the character you listed in part one.
5. The potentially disastrous consequences that could result if the character doesn’t overcome this opposition.

Again there will be several answers to these questions. Your character will meet different types of opposition and will face different consequences at different times in the story. Try to choose something that could really spell disaster for your character.

Example (continued from the example in part one)
4. The clock stands in Jack’s way. It says that Jack must turn back in 25 minutes or he will not be able to descend safely before night falls.
5. Another climber in difficulty asks for his help, which will take precious minutes from his available time.

If you end up with several different versions for the five elements, that’s good. You will be able to experiment and see which pitch works best.

Again in the online tutorial, participants were asked to have a go at listing out these two elements for their own novel and saying why they picked each one. Those who wanted then posted their lists as comments and we commented on their choices. See these discussions HERE.

We also recommended that participants try out several variations, noting that it is usually easy to decide on 1, 2 and 3, but it gets harder to figure out 4 and 5 as there will usually be many more alternatives.

PART III
Take the first three of the elements in your list and turn them into a single statement.

Using the example given, we can turn this into the following:
Jack Smith has sold everything to fund his attempt to climb Everest and he stands within sight of his goal.

Now take the last two elements in your list and turn them into a question.

Using the examples given, we can turn this into the following:
Will he lose this only chance to fulfil a lifetime ambition when a stranger calls for help?

Put these together and you have a short, focused pitch:
Jack Smith has sold everything to fund his attempt to climb Everest and he stands within sight of his goal. Will he lose this only chance to fulfil a lifetime ambition when a stranger calls for help?

These short pitches don't tell the story of the book in any detail. The important thing is that they introduce the main character, say something about his or her motivation and then they raise a question, hopefully leaving the reader curious enough to read on.

This is the technique I used to write the pitch for the novel Like False Money. It caught the eye of several publishers who asked to see more of the book, even before the book itself was well enough written to warrant publication. However, when the book was accepted the publisher took the essence of the pitch and used it in the cover blurb.

The original pitch around the five elements was as follows:
Annie Raymond [1], desperate to be taken seriously as a private investigator [2], finds herself in an impossible job with a boss who hasn’t a clue who she is [3]. Will her career be over before it starts when a schoolgirl [4] accuses her of unprofessional conduct [5]?

Participants were invited to post their own short pitches for people to comment on. See these discussions HERE.

Adapted from Chapter 2 of the Writers’ Toolkit which contains more detail and examples.



If you found this mini tutorial useful, please leave a comment, spread the word and buy the book.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Elite: Reclamation by Drew Wagar

Elite Dangerous : ReclamationElite Dangerous : Reclamation by Drew Wagar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Not since Emily Bronte has anyone got away with this trick!

This is the second of the Elite books that I’ve read. Very different from Elite: Mostly Harmless but also an excellent read. A beautifully crafted story with real characters. I couldn’t help but get drawn into their world. I saw the beauty of the Prism system and cried ‘foul’ over the political shenanigans that threatened it. And what an amazing and original heroine. Not since Wuthering Heights has anyone got away with killing their main protagonist so early in the book. The threads of the story tangled and untangled until the unexpected but ultimately satisfying conclusion. Highly recommended.


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Friday, 13 June 2014

Elite: Mostly Harmless by Kate Russell

Elite Dangerous: Mostly HarmlessElite Dangerous: Mostly Harmless by Kate Russell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fast moving, funny and with a pearler of a twist

Years ago I used to devour science fiction like there was no tomorrow. Then I was stung by a few bad books and went off it for years. The short story anthology, Fusion, brought me back on board, and wow am I glad about that or I might have missed this one. Elite: Most Harmless is a gem. It’s fast moving and funny. It’s one of those who-needs-legal-highs-with-books-like-this-about sort of books. And a pearler of a twist at the end. Quite a few twists along the way. It had me gripped from page 1. The thing is that I could so easily have passed this one by. I don’t play computer games and this is authorised Elite fiction, and I did wonder if I would need to be an Elite aficionado to get it. Not at all. Once it had hooked me (which was well before the end of page 1) I never gave computer gaming a thought. A great read.


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Friday, 16 May 2014

Writer’s Reveal

Starting from the movie term ‘baton pass’, this series links writers and their work rather than scenes in a film. I took the baton from Stuart Aken and here’s my leg of the race:

What are you working on?

Not what you might think for a crime writer. Along with a colleague I’m looking at how creative writing techniques can be used in reducing the incidence of hip fractures in people with dementia. I'm writing a crime novel too and just waiting for a release date for the paperback of Where There’s Smoke.



What is happening around you while you write?

When I write on long train journeys, almost anything can happen. Memorable moments: the group of black deer scampering about the field outside; the psychiatrist who read patient notes loudly into a Dictaphone; the train that caught fire; the late night journey across Europe with only a very weird person whose language I didn’t speak for company. I created a watered down version of him in a book once. In fact, if I only ever wrote in a quiet office (which would have been my preference had life not intervened) would I ever have written the characters from The Doll Makers? Probably not, I’d have thought them too far-fetched.



Explain your research routine

I don’t have one. When I want to write about something I don’t know about, I go and dig for it. I talk to people, visit places, read first-person accounts, and of course I use the internet. And I rarely turn down the offer of a new experience, though sometimes I watch appalled rather than join in. It still makes my blood run cold when I think of the antics I witnessed that became Annie’s tower block escapade in Like False Money.



Which comes first plot strand, character, or what?

Usually it’s a tiny fragment of back-story that sits around a character who I will draw in my head in great detail and sometimes write about in depth. But barely any of this initial nugget will sit on the page in the finished version. The Jawbone Gang evolved from 30 pages of back-story that wasn't touched on until half way through the book.



Please visit my website for more info or join me on social media:
Website: www.pennygrubb.com
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I'm handing the baton to April Taylor who has been writing stories since she was a child. She lives on the Yorkshire coast in the north of England with her husband and a blind rescue golden retriever called Rufus. In her working life, she was an information professional working in public and prison libraries – the latter had some very interesting moments! Her last job before giving it all up for writing was as R&D Information Manager for a global pharmaceutical company.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Things people do to lift the mood

Here are two very different ways to lift your mood if you feel down. I can’t help wondering if these are the sorts of things that don’t both work for most people. Is it one or the other or can it be both?

It started when I heard someone say that if they feel a bit down they get out the Vim and a damp cloth and clean the plug sockets. Easy to scoff, I thought, but who am I to say it won’t work? I've never tried it. So I took the time to think it through:

  • Feel down
  • Find cloth
  • Damp it
  • Get Vim
  • Re-damp cloth which has dried out while at shop buying the Vim
  • Move furniture to get at plug sockets
  • Search for chisel to chip off encrusted dirt
  • Cause avalanche of tools (all non-chisels) from shed
  • Opt for a knife instead
  • Find another cloth as the first has been used by someone else to clean the dog’s feet
  • Damp it
  • Have a go at the plug sockets
  • Blow all the fuses
  • Sleep for 2 days
  • Wake refreshed.
  • It works!


Who am I kidding? I concede the ground on the tidy house front. My house is not that tidy. But if I feel down, I take a walk outside and mooch about the garden.



Even allowing for stray thoughts such as ‘that chair must have been left out all night’, a few minutes contemplating the garden beats plug sockets for me.




So is that the norm? Does the garden beat the plug sockets or do most people find solace in both arenas?

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Novelists Stuart Aken, JRR Tolkein, Isaac Asimov and Michael Moorcock on writing

Today my interviewee is prolific writer, blogger and novelist Stuart Aken. I’m looking at his work through the lens of three of the biggest names in science-fiction and fantasy. Stuart has just published Joinings, which is available as an ebook and a paperback in the UK and in the USA

Joinings is the first in Stuart's A Seared Sky trilogy.




JRR Tolkein once said of The Lord of the Rings that years after writing it he found it “good in parts,” suggesting he might have improved it had he spent even longer writing and editing. Joinings and the whole of the A Seared Sky trilogy have been a long time in the making. Is it because you have suffered Tolkein syndrome and been unable to let the book go or has it been for other reasons?

Writing a trilogy exceeding 600,000 words is quite a labour of love. Given that the ‘average’ novel is around 100,000 words (some are a lot shorter, of course), it’s the equivalent of six books. Mine’s been a work in progress for far longer than intended. What caused the delays? Life mostly. 

Looking back, it’s hard to recall that I drew the map and started researching for the fantasy before my daughter was born. She’s now in her third year at university! In between the start and publication of the first book, there have been house moves (one of which required me to completely renovate the building from floor to roof), changes in employment, a lengthy period of ME/CFS, and one or two other life events. But I was also writing other stuff. I’ve written and published 7 books in that time.

The one thing that never contributed to the delay, however, was an inability to let go. I’ve always wanted this trilogy to be out there on the shelves and in the hands of readers: it’s why I write.



It’s always fascinating to know how people get started. Legendary fantasy and science-fiction author, Michael Moorcock, advises, “Find an author you admire (mine was Conrad) and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story.” How does that fit with your own start as a novelist and is it the advice you would give to others?

I’ve never been an emulator. I see writing as a mixture of art and craft. The art is entirely personal. The craft can be learned from others, of course. I’ve read extensively, and in most genres, from earliest childhood, so I’ve been exposed to the very best, and the very worst, of fiction. Any writer who either can’t be bothered to read or feels it’s unnecessary is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the worst. So, the advice I’d give to those contemplating this demanding, exciting, fascinating, frustrating, lonely, wonderful and compulsive way of life, is to read, read, write, read some more. 

Oh, and before you start putting finger to keyboard, read Dorothea Brande’s excellent Becoming a Writer; it’ll save you countless wasted hours. And, as a manual for the practicalities, take a look at Penny’s The Writers’ Toolkit; it’s an excellent tool of the trade.

Your writing covers a huge range, Stuart, and although you haven’t quite produced the volume of Isaac Asimov, well known for both his popular science and his science fiction writing and author of over 500 books, you are a prolific writer. Asimov put his prodigious output down to having “a simple and straightforward style”. Is that the secret or is there more to it?

I won’t pretend to understand the profligacy of Asimov (with whom a recent reviewer compared me, to my delight). There have been others who have turned out huge quantities and managed to maintain good quality. I’m never short of ideas, and, in case I forget something, which is quite likely given the goldfish nature of my memory, I record all random thoughts and ideas in notebooks that are placed all over the house, and in jacket pockets, with dedicated pens. 

I write quite quickly and for reasons I don’t understand, have an ability to sit at a blank screen with no idea in my head and turn out a short story in an hour or so. I’m a pantster – the very idea of plotting shuts down my creative urge in seconds – so I write very much on the fly. I’ll do character sketches, research background for a story, form a very, very loose scaffold in my head before I start writing. But the actual story is developed as I go along, usually by the characters deciding how they’re going to get out of the trouble I’ve placed them in. 

In A Seared Sky, there are 110 named characters, so I had to devise a spreadsheet to keep track of where they all were at any given time in the story. I generally know where I want the story to end, but I have no idea of the journey, which, for me, is half the fun of writing.

Thank you, Stuart. That was an amazing glimpse into the world of the fantasy writer.



Joinings is available online

and from your local bookshop: quote the title and the ISBN 978-1-909-163-30-0 13

For more information about Stuart and his work visit his website. And I know he'll be pleased to welcome anyone who wants to join him in his social networks listed there.



Monday, 31 March 2014

Joinings: A Seared Sky. Couldn't put it down

Joinings: A Seared SkyJoinings: A Seared Sky by Stuart Aken
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Joinings is the first book in Stuart Aken’s Seared Sky trilogy. And that guarantee of more to come will be music to the ears of fantasy fans. It is hard to imagine anyone getting to the end of this and not thirsting for more.

The opening scene is gripping. It hooked me in and then I was compelled to read the rest. Aken weaves a complex tale through a meticulously constructed fantasy world showing us fascinating glimpses of different ways of life, different beliefs.

The dangers of a society in thrall to superstition and corrupt government are well drawn, as are the characters. There are no pantomime baddies here, no clichéd heroines, but well-rounded characters whose destinies we can’t help but follow. Tumalind and Okkyntalah; Dagla Kaz, Jodisa-Li, Aklon and the rest of the cast create a very real world with real problems and challenges. But it doesn’t get lost in big picture stuff. There are solid and compelling human stories at the core of this excellent book.

The only real problem: it’s a big book and it’s hard to put down. But when it comes to book, that’s just the sort of problem I love to be faced with. I’m watching out for the next.


View all my reviews

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Novelists Linda Acaster, Stephen King, Agatha Christie and Barbara Taylor Bradford on writing

Today I’m talking to novelist Linda Acaster through the lens of three very different but very successful novelists. Linda has just published The Bull At The Gate, the second book in her Torc of Moonlight trilogy. The Bull At The Gate opens,

The light behind was fading, the darkness pressing in, pushing the silence so close that he feared he might suffocate in it.



Stephen King is a writer who has forged a stratospheric career from weaving the paranormal into his novels. He says, ‘An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.’ 

Do you agree with King and why did you choose this as the opening for The Bull At The Gate?

It’s all about engagement. In the trilogy, landscape plays a subversive role, and at the opening I needed the reader to engage on an emotional level with the character, only picking up snippets about who he was, and where and when he was, as the scene progressed. A sense of claustrophobia is something that stalls most of us, even if for the reader, who is perfectly safe, the sense is irrational. Sort of.

Stephen King is able to portray the everyday mundane, lulling readers into a false sense of security as they learn about the life of a person just like them. It is difficult to identify in his writing where the normal blends into the paranormal until the reality has fully shifted and there’s no way back. That’s a skill I admire.

How does a novel come into being? The world’s most successful ever crime novelist Agatha Christie hated being asked to talk about her writing process. As she said, ‘You think of an idea and force yourself to write it.’ 

You clearly knew you were writing a trilogy when you wrote the first book, Torc of Moonlight, so presumably you already had the ideas for the next two books. 



Is Christie right? Is it the actual writing that’s the bit you have to force out of yourself? And does this mean your readers are in for a long wait for no 3?

Hopefully not too long a wait – LOL! As it happened, no, I didn’t have the two further books mapped when the first was in embryo. I knew where I wanted to end the story, but as the writing progressed I realised I wasn’t going to get there in under a tome no one would want to publish or hold. My agent at the time was adamant about it being a stand-alone which coloured my thinking for a while, but freed from those shackles it was allowed to take on its own life, which I’ll never regret. The two subplots made it to parallel storylines, and I’ve kept to that symmetry for the trilogy.

As to forcing myself to set words on paper, it often feels like that. I’m juggling a puzzle as any crime-writer does, and nuance plays an important part. I want readers to stop during the reading and think Of course! Why didn’t I see that earlier? Nuance can’t be written in afterwards as one begets another, so there is no ‘fast and dirty draft’. It’s all hacking it from the granite page with a plastic spoon.

Where did it all start? Novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford says, ‘For me it all starts with a memorable character.’ Where did this trilogy start for you? And once the trilogy was off the runway with Torc of Moonlight, did that give you the starting point for The Bull At The Gate and the yet-to-be-named book 3?

I agree there; a memorable character it was. While reading a piece on ancient water lore my experiences walking the landscape jumped into sharp relief. People believed that sacred waters were guarded by female deities. Just because we, with our modern plumbing and sewerage systems, don’t share their world view, who are we to say they were wrong?

I find it interesting that the ‘memorable character’ which has such an influence on all three books, hardly makes an appearance, rather I feel, the way it must have been at the time. It is in exploring the mismatch of belief, non-belief, and demonisation of a pre-Christian deity that has proved such fertile ground for the trilogy. If you are a modern person caught in the middle of this, what do you believe, how does it affect you, and who do you go to for aid?

Thank you, Linda, for some fascinating insights into your writing processes. For anyone who wants to know more, please leave Linda a question or comment below. Linda has offered a giveaway to readers of this blog. She will pick someone from amongst those who comment and send them both books for free. Watch this space! [Draw now closed; thanks to everyone who participated]

The Bull at the Gate is available for all ereaders:

To find more information about Linda, her other novels, her alter-ego Tyler, and her many writing credits visit her website.