Month: July 2022

  • How to use Facebook and Instagram ads

    How to use Facebook and Instagram ads
    How to use Facebook and Instagram ads

    Have you ever tried to run a Facebook or Instagram ad directly to your sales or services page which resulted in little to no sales?

    I’ve seen both writers and editors mention that they didn’t find Facebook ads useful. Others will have had more success. It’s hard to know what went right or wrong without looking at the ads.

    I haven’t used Facebook or Instagram ads myself, but I did learn how they worked when I took the Copy Posse Launch Files course and the FB ads course at Copy School. I’m currently a member of Copy School which is located at Copy Hackers.

    So, what do you need to know about Facebook ads?

    First of all, it’s necessary to back up and look at some basic marketing theories. According to Eugene Schwarz, who wrote the bible of marketing, Breakthrough Advertising, there are five levels of customer awareness. And five levels of market sophistication.

    The five levels of customer awareness

    Let’s start with customer awareness. The prospect is the potential customer you want to target. Eugene Schwartz broke it down as follows:

    • Completely unaware – the prospect has a problem but isn’t aware of it as yet
    • Problem aware – the prospect knows they have a problem, but doesn’t know the solution
    • Solution aware – the prospect knows they have a pain, and knows the solution, but isn’t yet clear about the exact product or supplier
    • Product aware – this person is much more aware of their problem, likely solution, and the products available to them
    • Totally aware – this person knows what they want and they just need an extra push to buy the product. Some people in this group will sit on long waitlists and jump to buy as soon as doors open. They will pre-order books as soon as they hear about them

    To put it into simpler terms, you are really going to struggle to sell anything to the completely unaware group. And they are a big group. Trying to run an ad to a sales page isn’t going to convert this group.

    Neither are you likely to convert the problem-aware group. This is partly because the closer a prospect is to the completely unaware end of the spectrum, the more time it takes to convert them. They need more information. A single ad isn’t going to do it. You need to warm them up.

    The group most likely to convert is the completely aware – they would likely know your name already. Maybe they follow you on social media or they’ve read one of your books before. Maybe they subscribe to your newsletter. A time-limited offer could push this group over the line – for example, a 24-hour sale.

    But they’re the smallest group of all. So, you won’t get many sales from them.

    I remember a tutorial at Copy Hackers where the following breakdown was suggested:

    • Completely unaware – 30%
    • Problem aware – 30%
    • Solution aware – 30%
    • Product aware – 6-7%
    • Completely aware – 3-4%

    I don’t think these figures were meant to be a universal rule, but it’s a good example of what you might be dealing with. The two groups at the bottom are the easiest to convert, but together they might only be around 10%. Unless your market is huge, that isn’t going to convert well to huge sales. 10% of millions of people isn’t bad. 10% of a much smaller number is an entirely different matter.

    How to convert people

    So, how do you convert more people? The answer is quite simple – you need to move people from problem aware to completely aware. In the short to medium term, you can forget the completely unaware group. The effort to convert them is just going to be too much time and money.

    Because the less aware someone is about their own problem and the solution, let alone your product or service, the more they need to be educated. That’s a lot of copy and ads to write.

    It’s not impossible to convert them. But why focus on the bottom 30% when you have the problem- and solution-aware groups instead?

    Market sophistication

    So, what is market sophistication? This concept, also broken into five categories, deals with the spectrum of how new a product is to market versus whether the market is oversaturated.

    Level one is new to market. In the Copy Posse Launch Pad course, Alex Cattoni used the example of the Model T car. It was the first mass-produced family car. There are other examples of something that is the first to market. What’s important to consider here is how to market a product that is the first of its kind. You can’t describe it as being like something else, because there isn’t anything else.

    The consequence of being the first is that prospective customers will need a lot of information to understand what the product is and how it can help them. Because they have no point of comparison.

    At the other end, you have level five – here the market is completely saturated. This is true of the book market. When you’re operating in a saturated market, you are going to struggle to stand out. The competition is huge, prospective customers are overwhelmed by choice, and there are big names that are long established.

    I’m not going to dwell on market-level sophistication here because this post relates more to Facebook ads. If you’re writing in a completely new genre – does such a thing exist?! – then you could possibly be level one. But you still exist within the wider ecosystem of a saturated marketplace. Plus, you’d have the problem of having to explain to people why they should take a chance on your shiny new kind of story that they can’t fit into a pre-existing category.

    Back to customer awareness

    So, how does customer awareness fit into Facebook ads?

    Well, as I’ve pointed out above, your most likely buyers are going to be a small group. If you run the link from your ad straight to a sales page, you might get some purchases. But it takes a lot more effort to get a lot of sales. Because any potential readers stumbling on your ad are being bombarded with other ads too (saturated marketplace).

    The truth is, you shouldn’t run a Facebook or Instagram ad directly to a sales page unless you’re specifically targeting the most aware people, or you’re retargeting people already aware of your brand.

    So, if you don’t run the ad to your sales page, where the heck do you send traffic to?

    And this is where you need to stop and think about your overall sales funnel.

    Because this is what you need to do – funnel people through to the end goal of hopefully buying your book (or service).

    This is where conversion copywriting comes in.

    Conversion copywriting

    Even if you never intend to become a conversion copywriter, it’s really worth understanding the concept. The old direct response copywriting was more hard sell. But in conversion copywriting, the copy isn’t meant to get a sale. It’s meant to get a click. It’s meant to get the reader to take action – which could be clicking on a link, or signing up to a newsletter.

    You are basically funneling a prospective reader or client through a series of clicks. Conversion copywriting is also data-driven, but you don’t need to worry about that too much. You’re not pitching your services to a company. You’re trying to sell your book or service. You can however do some of the research a conversion copywriter would do when it comes to writing your Facebook or Instagram ad. Further down this post I talk about voice of customer data (VOC) and review mining.

    So, where do you send traffic from an FB or IG ad?

    To a landing page. So, what the heck is a landing page? Is it the home page of your website?

    The importance of landing pages

    If you’re intending to publish, you should have a website. But your landing page is not your home page or any page on your site that has a buy button.

    Traditionally, landing pages have one purpose and one purpose only. Usually, it’s to get people to sign up for a freebie/giveaway in exchange for their email address. The freebie must have high value and show your expertise.

    In the case of an author, perhaps you have a novella or juicy story connected to a series you’re writing. You will already know that authors often have one book free to let readers sample their work. It can be a great way to get readers hooked on a series.

    You see these books on Amazon.

    But here’s the problem – if you only make your freebie available on bookstores, you are missing out on an important marketing opportunity. You can’t build a relationship with them if you’re only marketing on other people’s land. Jess Bezos’ land in this case.

    You should aim to have an author newsletter – and one that’s really interesting enough that people will want to open those emails when they get them. But if you only send traffic to the likes of Amazon, you won’t be able to warm up potential readers. You will be forever relying on the most aware – the smallest group of potential buyers.

    Your marketing strategy has to start earlier in the customer awareness spectrum. If your ad runs to a landing page where you offer a juicy story/novella, then the ad should be about that story, not the novels you’re selling on Amazon. And the copy on the landing page should be about that story/novella too.

    It’s too early to try and get people to buy. Some will, of course. But most won’t.

    As for your landing page, traditionally they don’t have navigation menus because those tempt people to click away from the page. And when it comes to the email sign-up form for the freebie – have as few fields as possible. In fact, at the most, you should only have first name and email address.

    Because the more information you ask someone for, the less likely they’ll sign up.

    Once they’ve signed up you then send them the freebie (known as a lead magnet). Owing to regulations on privacy and email marketing, you should have a double opt-in too. If you are using email marketing, you should definitely familiarise yourself with the rules.

    Your email newsletter as a sales funnel

    They have now entered your email funnel. So, what do you do now?

    Here’s what you don’t do: bombard them with emails saying ‘Buy my book’. That’s guaranteed to get people to unsubscribe. (Especially since your emails should make it easy to unsubscribe because of email marketing rules!)

    When people first sign up to a lead magnet (your freebie), that’s often when they’re most interested. If you’re good at writing emails, you can also build interest over time. But because other people are also sending them emails, you need to make sure yours stand out.

    Here are things to aim for:

    • Use a ‘from name’ they’re likely to remember
    • Write an automated onboarding sequence of emails for new readers to your newsletter. It should introduce you and show the value of being on your newsletter list
    • This onboarding sequence can be nothing more than a few emails before the recipient starts to get your normal newsletters
    • Email marketing is still the strongest form of marketing and because it happens out of sight, that fact often goes unnoticed

    Email marketing is a big subject in itself.

    The most important point about your email marketing here is that it should take up where your FB/IG ad and lead magnet left off. With your emails, you can establish a relationship with readers. This is something you can build on for current and future book releases.

    Voice of customer and review mining

    When you’ve made your decision about where and when you’re going to market your book, you still have to think about the wording of your marketing campaigns, including your Facebook ads. What language should you use to appeal to possible buyers?

    This is where voice of customer (VOC) data and review mining comes in.

    Let’s say you write cozy mysteries. The first thing you should do is check out the reviews of competitor titles. Also, any websites that focus on the genre are worth checking out. You can also check out Facebook groups dedicated to fans of your genre. Why? You want to find out exactly how readers feel about this genre. What problems do they have? What are their criticisms? What words and phrases do they tend to use? This will represent voice of customer research.

    Because when you write copy, you need to speak in the language that your ideal customer uses.

    You need to reflect their language back at them.

    It’s not about copying someone’s review, it’s about collecting the words, phrases, and feelings/emotions that come up with this genre. This then gives you a vocabulary you can use to help you write your own original copy.

    Checking out competitor ads

    You can check out any ads your competitors are running on Facebook by going to the left-hand side of the page, scrolling down, and looking for ‘Page Transparency’. Go to Ad Library. Any ads currently running should appear, depending on the location you have chosen. If you opt for ‘Choose All’ you should see any ads running in any part of the world.

    But a word of caution – just because an ad might be running doesn’t mean it’s performing well. Don’t automatically assume it is. But it is certainly worth having a look at other ads in your market, especially from people who are known to be successful or where a product is successful.

    In the case of successful products, their success might depend on earlier ads and not the ones you see now.

    Nevertheless, Facebook’s ad library is worth checking out. But if you don’t see any book ads on many accounts, don’t be surprised. Many writers probably don’t use Facebook ads because of limited budgets or because they’ve heard too many mixed messages about ad success.

    The key though is to understand that ads are part of a funnel and not the magic button that leads to lots of sales.


    If you run a Facebook ad expecting to get direct sales, you will likely be disappointed with the results. Because your Facebook and Instagram ads are only part of a wider marketing ecosystem. They are the beginning of a sales funnel.

    They send people over to the next part of the funnel – your landing page, where you offer a lead magnet.

    You get them signed up to your email marketing newsletter. And in your emails you lay the ground for marketing yourself and your books.

    There is so much more to be written about Facebook and Instagram ads. I didn’t tackle the importance of a good headline hook and other parts of your ad. Or the rules about what you can and can’t post.

    What I’ve written above is the simpler version or the overview. In reality, you can have multiple FB ads targeting different stages of awareness, etc.

    But while complex sales funnels might work for a bigger brand or a business with more money, authors don’t have the same level of funding. Consequently, you are better targeting your funnel towards your email newsletter.

    If you’re still working on your novel and need feedback, I’m available for manuscript critiques, opening chapters developmental edits, and full developmental editing. You can check out my services pages but I also offer custom work, tailored to your needs. If you’re interested in working with me, I offer sample developmental edits of up to 2000 words.

  • My best productivity tips for writers

    My best productivity tips for writers
    My best productivity tips for writers

    I wrote most of this blog post in August 2021 and forgot to post it. Now here it is and it’s just as relevant!

    In the age of social media, constant rolling news, and a shorter attention span, it can be hard to focus on the task in hand. This is especially true if you’re working alone. Whether you’re a self-employed business owner or a writer, you need to develop good concentration skills.

    That fear of missing out when you switch off social media keeps you checking back on the slightest pretext. Because that is what social media companies want. They want you addicted.

    As for rolling 24-hour news, that also generates a fear of missing out on what’s happening. The news agenda is driven by ratings as much as anything. The problem with news is that it’s often distressing and something you can do absolutely nothing about.

    But it gets into your head and even when you’ve switched off the news, it’s still replaying on a loop. Making it hard to focus.

    If you’re someone who enjoys interacting online and following news, it can be hard to switch off. But if you want to do your best writing or other work, you absolutely must conquer any distractions.

    Checking in on Twitter every five minutes isn’t going to help you write a great novel. It will prevent you from becoming immersed in your characters’ world, which could lead to a surface-level story. Not something that will hook readers.

    I’ve tried a few different options when it comes to increasing productivity and decreasing distractions:

    • Temporary deletion of a Twitter account – you have up to 30 days to switch it back on
    • Avoiding social media earlier in the day to focus on more important tasks
    • Social media blockers – for hours, days, or longer
    • White noise apps – including rain sounds, cafe sounds
    • Plugging myself into headphones to cut off the outside world
    • Using a Pomodoro timer to pace tasks and blocks of time
    • Making a list of things to do and working my way through them
    • Task batching – setting aside a block of time to work on the same kinds of tasks
    • Task batching can be used to schedule social media posts before logging out for the day
    • I’ve also been impressed with apps like UnDistracted and Insight by Freedom
    • There’s also reading other writers’ work – I call it fuelling the tank because after enough reading, the motivation can be topped up to the point where you absolutely must get to your desk and work on your own story
    • You can also use music to get you into the mood – by finding tracks that fit the theme or scenes of your book. Like your very own soundtrack album. Used enough, these can quickly get you into the right frame of mind

    There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that taking an extended break from social media frees up more mental space. You can even block it for most of the day and only allow yourself a short break to engage with people you know there. Then hit the block again!

    I mostly use Rainy Mood as a white noise app – I turn it up high to block out background sounds, include talk, and plug in my headphones. As an editor, I find this just helps me concentrate more. It’s just me, the manuscript, and the rain!

    A Pomodoro timer allows for targeted break times. Then you can grab a drink, go to the loo, stretch, or just chill out for a few minutes before the next block of work.

    Having a list of things to do at the beginning of the day is also incredibly useful. It allows me to use my time more strategically, ticking things off as I go along. I tried this a lot more in the last week or so, and finally tackled tasks I’d been putting off for ages.

    Task batching is not something I’ve used so much as yet. If you don’t know what it is, it means putting the same tasks together into a batch rather than jumping around between very different tasks. So, if you have an editing business, you might put aside an admin day rather than try to fit in bits of admin around your editing hours.

    Because jumping from one task to another one that is quite different can be less efficient. You’re pretty much all over the place instead of focusing on the same kind of thing.

    While all of that helps with focus and avoiding distractions, you still have the problem of getting down to do some writing. Procrastination can be a terrible thing. Writers often sabotage themselves.

    However, it can also take some time to build up your writing muscles. I personally found keeping a daily word count very useful while working on some writing of my own.

    I originally wrote a draft of this post in August 2021. It’s now July 2022. I forgot to finish the post and found it while searching for another unpublished post.

    Since I’ve written about social media, distractions, and apps that help a few times on this blog, it’s clearly something that concerns me! But when I was doing research recently on social media companies hiring attention engineers, I discovered just how disturbing these apps really are.

    When I temporarily deleted my Twitter account recently, I suddenly found I had a lot more time on my hands.

    People often despair that they struggle to find time to write.

    But the truth is that often you need to claw that time back from social media and the 24-hour news cycle. The time is there, but you can’t see it. You’re on a hamster wheel of endless scrolling or checking your notifications.

    An app like Insight by Freedom will tell you exactly how much time you’ve spent on various sites. It’s worth considering how much of that time could have been spent on writing or other things.

    Otherwise, if you’re a fiction or memoir writer who is looking for feedback on your manuscript, you can check out my services page or contact me directly to discuss your project. You will find me at:

    More related posts from the blog:

  • Famous first lines… or how to start your novel

    Famous first lines... or how to start your novel
    How important is the first line of your novel?

    Novels with famous first lines. You’ve seen them, even read some of them, or pored over their opening pages. Famous first lines you can repeat from memory.

    Ursula Le Guin says in her essay, The Fisherwoman’s Daughter, that:

    First sentences are doors to worlds.

    She’s right. A great first sentence can hook the reader and reel them in.

    Of course, you can’t build the success or fate of a novel on a first sentence alone. If you have a great first sentence or first paragraph, and the writing that follows doesn’t live up to its promise, the reader will bail.

    In another blog post, I’ll deal with the conversion sequence that starts with the cover art and that moves through to the opening of the book.

    But to summarise, there’s a sequence of hooks that are meant to draw a reader in. The cover image might help a book stand out in a bookshop against the competition. The cover can be seen from across a store. You can’t see a blurb from that far, and you won’t get anywhere near the opening lines until you are tempted to pick the book up in the first place.

    The power of the opening sentence hook comes at the end of a sequence of hooks that lead up to it.

    Getting a potential reader or book buyer to check out the book in the first place is a challenge. The book market is already saturated and it’s easy to get depressed when you walk into a large bookshop and check out the sheer wealth of competition.

    You need all the help you can get – which is why great and genre-appropriate cover art is so important.

    A decent blurb is also important.

    But readers browse the opening pages of far more books than they’ll ever buy or read. They are engaging in a filtering process – filtering out what doesn’t appeal fast as they search for something that hooks their attention, and makes them curious to read more.

    That’s why the opening lines and pages of your book matter.

    Your opening lines need to draw a reader in. They can do this in different ways. Sometimes it’s dropping the reader straight into some action – there are Hollywood films that also use this type of hook.

    There are also opening lines that raise a question in the reader’s mind – leading to a curiosity to find the answer(s). Some opening lines cast a spell over the reader, urging them to read on.

    One of the things readers remember most about a book is how it made them feel. They won’t necessarily remember all the plot details years down the line, but they will likely remember the impact a book had on them, the mood of the book, its atmosphere, and how it made them feel.

    Sometimes this is also related to the writer’s voice, and voice is something that can show up in the very first line.

    In a 2013 interview with The Atlantic, Stephen King was asked about his favourite lines, and they turned out to be his opening lines. According to King:

    An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.

    Among his own books, his favourite opening line is from Needful Things. Four simple words printed in 20-point on a page: You’ve been here before. King sees this as an invitation to keep reading and that it suggests a familiar story.

    King works on his openings while he lies in bed before going to sleep. He composes them in his head and will rework them over the coming days, weeks, and even years. Once he’s happy with the opening, he knows he can write the book.

    There are many famous opening lines in fiction:

    Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. 

    Daphne du Maurier – Rebecca

    The opening sentence of Rebecca is a particularly famous example. Perhaps one of the most famous – in part thanks to the Hitchcock adaptation where Joan Fontaine narrates the opening sentences of the novel.

    But many people know it from the book alone. It’s a line that throws up questions in the mind of a new reader. Who is the narrator – we never find out her true name. She is simply the second Mrs. de Winter. And what is Manderley?

    The sentences that follow the first line fill in some of the details. Rebecca opens on a mystery – the mystery of Manderley, abandoned, ruined, and overgrown, and why the narrator can never go back.

    Here’s another famous example:

    The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

    LP Hartley – The Go-Between

    The Go-Between is a classic English novel set against the backdrop of the end of the Victorian era. Specifically, the summer of 1900. It is a novel in which an older man is reflecting on the time he spent as a young boy at a school friend’s estate – a period he has blanked out from his memory until he finds his old diary and pieces things together.

    In an interview Hartley said:

    I wanted to evoke the feeling of that summer [in 1900], the long stretch of fine weather, and also the confidence in life, the belief that all’s well with the world, which everyone seemed to enjoy before the First World War…

    The first line of the book links to the changes the character has seen in the world since 1900. He’s remembering the past from the 1950s. Two world wars have passed, with what in 1900 would have been unimaginable casualties and horrors. The aristocratic late Victorian society that young Leo samples in his visit to the estate has long passed away. The past is indeed a foreign country and things were different then.

    Speaking of long summers in 1900, there is also Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, which I wrote about in another blog post. Here is the opening sentence:

    Everyone agreed that the day was just right for the picnic to Hanging Rock – a shimmering summer morning warm and still, with cicadas shrilling all through breakfast from the loquat trees outside the dining-room windows and bees murmuring above the pansies bordering the drive.

    Lindsay wrote the novel after a series of dreams about a picnic at the Rock. She wrote it in winter, but when she woke from the dreams she could still feel the summer heat. The novel’s opening sentences capture the mood and season of the dreams. But the central event of the novel, the picnic at Hanging Rock, is also referenced from the very first line.

    Staying on the theme of summer there is this opening line:

    It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

    Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar

    In a few short words, the novel’s opening sets the season, the talking point of the time (the Rosenbergs, which also anchors the opening in a particular year), and the location.

    Or how about the opening to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History:

    The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.

    The opening line of the prologue gets to the heart of the story, yet a new reader will only have questions rather than answers at this point. Who is Bunny? Why is he dead? And why does the narrator mean by the gravity of our situation?

    Of course, if you’ve read the book, you’ll know the answer. The first half of the novel leads up to the events that cause Bunny’s death. The second half deals with the fallout. The opening sentence doesn’t deal with the lead-up to the death – but it shows that there will likely be consequences. And that the novel deals with this in some way.

    The opening of 1984 immediately indicates that there is something not quite right about the society in this book. The clocks are striking thirteen. This famous novel deals with a dystopian society and acts as a political warning.

    It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

    George Orwell – 1984

    Zora Neale Hurston was part of the Harlem Renaissance but she never really got the recognition she deserved during her lifetime. Her fame really came after her death. The opening line of her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is a standout line. It’s more than just an opening hook that draws the reader into her story. It’s a handy saying too.

    Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.

    Zora Neale Hurston – Their Eyes Were Watching God

    William Gibson’s Neuromancer has a particularly striking image in the opening sentence:

    The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.

    Meanwhile, the opening sentence to JG Ballard’s High-Rise raises all sorts of questions in the reader’s mind:

    Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.

    The opening of Andy Weir’s The Martian gets straight to the seriousness of the narrator’s situation:

    I’m pretty much fucked.

    And he is. Well and truly. The rest of the novel follows him as he figures out how to survive on Mars when the rest of his crew have left him for dead. Nobody on Earth or even his old crew know yet that he is still alive. So, help isn’t arriving anytime soon.

    Or how about Iain Banks’ unforgettable first line in his contemporary Scots novel, The Crow Road:

    It was the day my grandmother exploded.

    Apart from the unexpected image, there are all sorts of questions like why and how she exploded.

    The novel isn’t actually about the whys of her eventful cremation, but the mystery of why the narrator’s Uncle Rory went missing. This is woven around a story about family and growing up.

    But that first line is a hook that gets the reader to read on. Hooks that raise questions in the reader’s mind can be answered early in the book providing there are bigger questions being raised that pull the reader on to finish the story.

    Earlier in this post, I mentioned Stephen King’s approach to first lines – he really tries to nail the first line before tackling the rest of the book. However, if you spend too much time trying to nail that first line, you can lose your confidence and motivation when it comes to the rest of the book.

    It’s far more important to get your early drafts down so that you have a story to work with, and characters to flesh out.

    It’s not unusual for writers to start the earlier drafts of their novel with a different scene or at a different stage in the narrative. And this is perfectly fine. A lot of writers need some warmup prose to get them into their story. Much of this can be discarded later.

    Once you have at least one full draft down, you can start to think about the right starting point. But even that isn’t about exactly the right first line.

    You can actually leave your opening line or lines until the very end of your writing process. During the earlier drafts and rewrites, you can note down ideas for opening lines. But this fine-tuning of the opening can be something you can postpone until later.

    After all, you don’t want to waste your burst of enthusiasm for your story on working and reworking the same lines over and over. Plunge into your story. Worry about the details later.

    You might be someone who often has a good first line in mind – if so, that’s great. But it’s not necessary when you’re first sitting down to write. Especially if you want a line that will really hook the reader.

    Of course, it’s not just your opening line that matters, but your opening paragraphs, pages, chapters etc.

    If you want feedback on your opening chapters, I offer an opening chapters developmental edit. The relevant service page mentions 15,000 words, but I also do custom word counts for those who want a shorter opening assessed.

    The edit looks at opening hooks, characterisation, point of view, and much more. You get an editorial letter and a copy of your manuscript with track commenting in the margins.

    More posts from the IndieCat blog

    Should you dust off that old novel?

    How to establish a writing routine

    So indie authors aren’t real authors?

    Researching your novel’s locations online

    Boost your writing with the Pomodoro technique

    Why writers benefit from a 365 photo project

  • Joan Lindsay and Picnic at Hanging Rock

    Joan Lindsay and Picnic at Hanging Rock. A look at the writer and her novel.
    A look at the writer and her novel

    Everyone agreed that the day was just right for the picnic to Hanging Rock – a shimmering summer morning warm and still, with cicadas shrilling all through breakfast from the loquat trees outside the dining-room windows and bees murmuring above the pansies bordering the drive.

    Opening lines to Picnic at Hanging Rock

    If you’ve ever wondered whether a writer needs to establish early success, or be condemned forever to failure or obscurity, take heart. Joan Lindsay was 71 years old when her classic novel Picnic at Hanging Rock was published. It went on to become one of the most famous novels in Australian literature and a haunting film.

    Lindsay was born in 1896 and originally trained as an artist. Later, she switched to writing. Her first book was published pseudonymously in 1936 when she was 40.

    Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967) was still 31 years off.

    Before that, in 1962, Lindsay had another novel published – Time Without Clocks. It covers her wedding and idyllic early marriage. The title also refers to a fascinating detail that links to her future novel, Picnic. According to Wikipedia:

    The work takes its title from a strange ability which Joan described herself as having, of stopping clocks and machinery when she came close. The title also plays on the idea that this period in her life was unstructured and free.

    Wikipedia entry on Joan Lindsay

    Anyone who has read Picnic or watched the film adaptation will know that when the schoolmistresses and girls are picnicking on the ground below the Rock, their watches all stop. Later, at least two of those who go missing seem to be missing their corsets or restrictive clothing. Perhaps also linking back to the theme of a life free and unstructured.

    Presented as a true story, Picnic at Hanging Rock begins with a brief note:

    Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in the book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.

    The novel opens on St Valentine’s Day, 1900, at Appleyard College for Young Ladies. The school is a hothouse of girlish crushes, presided over by the strict Mrs. Appleyard who doesn’t approve of St Valentine. The girls exchange cards and soon they are ready to set out on their picnic. Mrs Appleyard issues strict instructions about their dress and behaviour. For example, they may remove their gloves once their conveyance has passed Woodend.

    The girls are also warned about the Rock which is extremely dangerous and they are not to engage in any tomboy foolishness ‘in the matter of exploration, even on the lower slopes‘.

    Of course, some of the party choose to ignore this warning. And the repercussions ripple through the rest of the book, building to a horrifying crescendo long after the girls have vanished.

    Although the novel is set in the sweltering heat of an Australian summer, it still falls within the gothic genre. Lindsay had long been fascinated by the Rock. And she compared her book to Henry James’s novel, The Turn of The Screw, ‘about the children in a haunted house with a governess‘.

    The Rock, a former volcano, with its mysterious paths where the girls and their schoolmistress go missing, could easily be a stand-in for a haunted house. It towers above the landscape below, like a gothic castle sitting on a peak. But it is also an ancient place. A ‘geological marvel‘ according to Mrs. Appleyard, who expects the girls to write an essay on the subject. She doesn’t attend the picnic with them, and the essays are never written. Unexpected and unexplained events are about to overtake the girls, the teachers, and their school.

    Miranda, one of the seniors, is the most memorable and popular of the schoolgirls. The French mistress sees her as a Botticelli angel. Meanwhile, Miranda’s much poorer roommate Sara adores her. Miranda also haunts the young Englishman picnicking with his family below the Rock. He sees her and her friends making their way towards it. It’s Miranda who leads the party upwards. When one of the other girls calls to her in warning, she doesn’t seem to hear. Later, the young Englishman and his family’s stablehand will search for the girls. And one of the girls is indeed found.

    Picnic at Hanging Rock was written very fast – over two weeks (some sources say four) – at Lindsay’s home Mulberry Hill in Victoria. It was written in winter, after a series of dreams she’d had about the events. The dreams about a picnic at the Rock were so powerful and vivid that she awoke still feeling the heat of the summer day. Joan wrote down what she remembered, beginning to sketch out the plot. She had another dream the next night and then rushed to write down what she could remember. Night after night she had another dream.

    Joan herself remembered that:

    Picnic at Hanging Rock really was an experience to write, because I was just impossible when I was writing it. I just sort of thought about it all night and in the morning I would go straight up and sit on the floor, papers all around me, and just write like a demon!

    Joan’s live-in housekeeper, Rae Clements, recalled that:

    She would come down from her study each day and say she’d had the dream again. Then she’d discuss the characters and what they were up to. She loved Miranda and the French mistress. Miranda was her favourite character. She was also fond of Albert. She often said, ‘Poor Albert! Poor little Sara!’ She definitely had her favourites.

    The title of the novel comes from a painting Joan remembered: At The Hanging Rock (1875) by William Ford. The novel was published on the 1st of November 1967. It has since become one of the most important and famous novels in Australian literature.

    Many readers assume that the story must be based on fact, but there is no record of a vanished school party. The State Library conducted a search of the February 1900 editions of the Age, Argus, and Woodend Star and nothing was found. Nor does Valentine’s Day in 1900 take place on a Saturday.

    But this hardly matters since the fictitious events have entered Australian mythology and folklore. The fame of the book and the later screen adaptation have ensured that the Rock draws plenty of tourists curious about the fate of the girls.

    One article even mentions tourists taking pieces of the six million-year-old rock home with them, only to fall foul of weird or unhappy events. Then they sometimes post the fragments back to Australia, like the Irishman who included a map to show where his piece had come from.

    Picnic at Hanging Rock ends at chapter 17 and a fictitious newspaper article from 1913. Apparently, chapter 18 was removed on the advice of the book’s editor. This missing chapter explained something of the girls’ fate. But it was felt that the ambiguous ending was better and Joan agreed.

    The final chapter appeared in a later book The Secret of Hanging Rock. But the novel is better off without it.

    In 1974, Joan said of her novel and its ambiguous end:

    Well, it was written as a mystery and it remains a mystery. If you can draw your own conclusions, that’s fine, but I don’t think that it matters. I wrote that book as a sort of atmosphere of a place, and it was like dropping a stone into the water. I felt that story, if you call it a story—that the thing that happened on St. Valentine’s Day went on spreading, out and out and out, in circles.

    It would spread out further with the Peter Weir adaptation which became a classic of Australian New Wave. The film’s hazy cinematography is partly down to putting bridal veils over the lens and shooting through. This technique was taken from the work of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and it gave Weir the impressionistic effect he was looking for.

    Anne Louise Lambert plays the part of Miranda in Weir’s film. But in the early weeks of shooting, her confidence was undermined as she was constantly asked to do more takes and retakes. Then one day, when shooting paused for a break, she walked off in her costume, ready to cry. Then she noticed an older woman making her way towards her over some rocks.

    It was Joan Lindsay. When Lambert held out her hand, Joan hugged her and said, ‘Oh Miranda, it’s been so long!’ Lambert tried to correct her, saying, “It’s me, Joan; it’s Anne.”

    But Joan just brushed this away and called her Miranda again.

    To her, I really was someone she had known, somewhere in time. Right then, I felt that if Joan Lindsay believed I was Miranda, I must be doing okay. I felt that if she believed in me, I would be okay.

    Anne Lambert

    Joan Lindsay passed away in 1984 at the age of 88. She had lived to not only see the success of Picnic at Hanging Rock but the success of the film adaptation. Through her dreams and her childhood fascination with the Rock, she conjured up a story that haunts the reader long after they have read the last page.

    The novel, described by one critic as mythopoeic, has become part of Australia’s folklore and mythology.

    She also returned to painting in her later years. Her final publication was a children’s book called Syd Sixpence.

    Some other posts from the blog

    Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon

    A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel (review)

    Historical fiction as a time machine