Thursday, 17 September 2020

The Write Stuff with... Helen Matthews

Today it's my pleasure to welcome author Helen Matthews to the blog to join in the publication day celebrations of her latest book Facade.

Lessons from Lockdown: to Zoom or not to Zoom

I’m writing this piece some weeks before it’s due to appear on Sharon’s blog and the UK is emerging from the strictest part of lockdown. For a while now, we’ve been going back outside, blinking in the light. It’s my fervent hope that there won’t be a second spike and, when you read this, we’ll be beating a path back to normality and rebuilding our shattered economy.

But let’s wind back time to 23rd March when the country went into lockdown. As I recall, we spent the first few days in a state of collective shell shock. Would flour and fresh vegetables ever reappear on the supermarket shelves? How would we cope without loo paper? We reached out to friends and family in long phone calls and emails, knowing it might be months before we could meet in real life.

Being human, we needed a visual connection. Groping our way from isolation, we tried Facetime, WhatsApp video and Skype. A friend, who has been studying for an online degree, told us about Zoom. Her university had been using it for tutorials and seminars. We decided to give it a go. I like to think we were early adopters. I’ve been zooming ever since.

Those early days of Zoom were pure chaos. Comedian, Michael McIntyre posted a clip of zoomers looking smart above the waist while wearing baggy boxers on their nether regions. He mentioned how every conversation started with: ‘Can you hear me? Turn your microphone on? It’s in the bottom left hand corner,’ and managed to make it sound funny. It wasn’t.

I invested in a professional Zoom account for £14 a month and found myself playing host and facilitator for everyone in my circle. I didn’t want to create barriers to entry, so I didn’t set a password and sent out my Zoom personal ID. My meetings welcomed more gatecrashers than a student house party! While I was online with my writers’ group, my friend Melissa, popped up -  twenty four hours early for a catch up with our university friends. It must have been confusing for her. She could see me but who were all those strangers?

With friends and family, Zoom quizzes and games evenings worked well, as did  evening drinks, but what’s the value of Zoom for writers?

Zoom for Writers’ Groups 

I’ll let you into a secret. I love writing groups and I belong to four. Writing groups are my Hotel California – you can go there but you can never leave. Writing buddies understand the slightly deranged minds and creative struggles of other authors.

I joined a local group, Rushmoor Writers, when my children were small. Back then, I spent more time on sabbatical from the group than actually attending because I rarely got home from work till 7.30 p.m. Now Rushmoor meets fortnightly on Zoom. We share our writing news and plan the short story anthology we’re producing for the group’s 70th anniversary.

My second group is made up of writers I met in Oxford on my Creative Writing MA course. We meet  monthly on Zoom (a poor substitute for our usual day in Oxford) but it’s well-organised with three people circulating work to read in advance and everyone giving feedback in the video call.

In Ark Writers, a six-strong group, we’re not always organised enough to send work in advance so we  end up reading it aloud on the Zoom call.

My final critique partnership (or perhaps it should be trio) is with two other suspense authors and our sessions can be intense, lasting up to four hours. We built tea breaks into our Zoom calls and our novels made great progress. This group was the first to break out of lockdown to meet in a garden in the sunshine, where we drank Prosecco as we critiqued.

Zoom for Author Talks

At the start of 2020, I had bookings for twenty author events, including three book groups and five literary festivals. Luckily for me, the book groups met in January and February because, by March, live events were falling out of the schedule faster than tumbling ninepins. One brave women’s group invited me to do my author talk by Skype. As a seasoned zoomer, I was less familiar with Skype so I asked the organiser if we could have a rehearsal. It turned out she wasn’t too experienced with it either and her teenage daughter showed her while we were online. She called up another member of their group to join us in the rehearsal and her videocall was answered by a woman, sunbathing nude, in her garden! Correction – this lady had probably just rolled down the straps of her dress to get an even tan on her shoulders, but on the screen it looked as if she had nothing on.

My talk went ahead the following evening and they seemed to enjoy it but I missed sharing incidents and jokes to warm up the audience. Showing slides by screen share felt a bit like talking into a void.

I did another online talk for a group of women I know personally. It went smoothly and, when I told them my eBook of short stories was on a 99p deal, several dutifully downloaded it and that same night it shot up into the Kindle top 50 in one of its categories. I was so grateful for that show of support because live events are so important for authors’ book sales and not so good if you can’t meet face to face.

Zoom for Lit Fests

Five literary festival bookings with my Noir Collective author friends (Katharine Johnson and GD Harper) were all stripped from the calendar. Ilminster and Cranbrook have rebooked us for next year and Barking is going online in September. 

Watching top authors in literary festivals on Zoom has been a lockdown joy but, over the weeks, there were too many to mention. I recommend signing up with and making an account and you’ll find a wealth of talks by great authors for free.

Writing Classes by Zoom

I’d like to tell you about these but I haven’t done any, though I’ve heard that Arvon offered some excellent courses during lockdown.

Zoom has been a useful ‘imitation of life’ (to quote REM) but it’s not life. It’s better than nothing but it’s exhausting. How ironic that in 2020, the term that stands for normal vision, we were stuck inside focusing our eyes on screens. Staying in has truly become the new going out.

Throughout this article I’ve referred to Zoom (with a mention of Skype). Other video- conferencing tools are available. 

Helen Matthews writes page-turning psychological suspense novels and is fascinated by the darker side of human nature and how a life can change in an instant. Her first novel, suspense thriller After Leaving the Village, won first prize in the opening pages category at Winchester Writers’ Festival, and was followed by Lies Behind the Ruin, domestic noir set in France, published by Hashtag Press. Her third novel Fa├žade will be published by darkstroke in late summer 2020.

Born in Cardiff, Helen read English at the University of Liverpool and worked in international development, consultancy, human resources and pensions management. She fled corporate life to work freelance while studying for a Creative Writing MA at Oxford Brookes University. Her stories and flash fiction have been shortlisted and published by Flash 500, 1000K Story, Reflex Press, Artificium and Love Sunday magazine.

She is a keen cyclist, covering long distances if there aren’t any hills, sings in a choir and once appeared on stage at Carnegie Hall, New York in a multi-choir performance. She loves spending time in France. Helen is an Ambassador for the charity, Unseen, which works towards a world without slavery and donates her author talk fees, and a percentage of royalties, to the charity.

Find out more at:
Follow her on Twitter: @HelenMK7
Instagram @helen.matthews7

A drowned child. Estranged sisters. A once-perfect home.

Silence echoes louder than truth.

When seventeen-year-old Rachel’s baby brother drowns and her older sister, Imogen, escapes to live abroad with Simon, her musician boyfriend, Rachel must face the family’s grief and disintegration alone.

Twenty years later, Rachel is a successful businesswoman, with a daughter of her own, supporting her parents and their elegant Georgian home, The Old Rectory, that shackles them to the past.

Simon’s sudden death in Ibiza brings Imogen back, impoverished and resentful. Her family owes her, and she will stop at nothing to reclaim what she believes is rightly hers.

The rift between the sisters seems permanent. While Imogen has lived a nomadic life, filled with intrigue, in Spain and Tunisia, Rachel’s has appeared stable and successful but, behind the veneer, cracks are appearing. Now, she is vulnerable.

As the wall of silence and secrecy crumbles, danger stalks Rachel’s family. She must re-examine her baby brother’s death, find out what happened in Tunisia, and fight to hold onto everything she’s achieved –or risk losing it all.

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