Friday, 1 May 2009


I've been thinking. It's kind of all you can do when you're up a mountain, other than wondering how the hell you're going to get down when the cloud has suddenly wrapped itself around your feet and you are on a peak without a piton.

OK, I lie: I wasn't thinking anything interesting at all while on this mountain, but I did need to get that picture into the story somehow. Later on, I will show you the mountain from afar and then you will be seriously impressed and want to examine my calf muscles. (All brand new).

Oh, all right, if you insist:

Yeah, really, me!
Up that mountain thar in the distance.

And again, a tad closer. Just because.

Anyway, now that we've got the fascinating concept of me as a mountaineer out of the way, as I say: I was thinking. I was thinking about people being deluded into thinking they can be published when they are seriously shite. Or sometimes not shite but giving a remarkable impression of being shite by doing everything stupid that could possibly be done by one person in one life-time.

You've seen it yourself, on Somewhere's Got Talent / Dragon's Den / the X-Factor - the utter uselessness of some of the contestants, the ones who are not just quite bad or even pretty rubbish or even pretending to be rubbish just to get on TV, but the ones who long ago crossed the line into madness, the ones who really do think they're the next superstar if only someone would give them a chance. The ones who think they've been held back from stardom by bad luck or the poor judgement of Simon Cowell instead of cringe-making hopelessness.

OK, now this concept is easy: that some wannabe writers, similarly, are utter rubbish. And they are - please do believe me. I have seen the evidence. It is writ in the runes which are passed from editor to editor and agent to agent and even humble author to author and go down in the anals (sic) of ludicrosity. The distance by which some aspiring authors are missing success is the sort of distance it takes light years to cover. You could even say that the length of time it would take them to reach stardom is pretty similar to the length of time it would take them to reach an actual star.

Which is all very well and interesting but not at all pointful for you, who are not numbered in the serried ranks of awfulness. If you were, you wouldn't be reading this blog, I think. You'd have been scared off way before now.

What I want you to consider is other forms of delusion. Delusion such as I too once suffered and which, therefore, is not shameful. Except a bit, in retrospect. Well, quite a lot actually: remember, I was the person who once seriously wrote a covering letter in rhyme. And did a few other things that lack of alcohol prevents me from divulging. I possibly even inserted something silly into an envelope to accompany a submission, but I have happily forgotten this.

But more importantly than that embarrassing silliness, I was deluded. I thought I was better than I was. I thought I was ready to be published. I didn't know that the beauteousness of my prose was of zero interest to a reader if it wasn't hung on a compelling story. Or that my voice was inconsistent except in its pretentiousness. Or that a story about my particular subject had not been written yet for a very good reason: that no one wanted to read it.

Now, the missing link to those photos from my recent Highland trip is this: I was like the people who ran the crap hotel that we stayed in. They were deluded into thinking that they were offering something of quality. They thought that in order to put "locally sourced produce" on the menu, it was enough for a van from Wiltshire Farm Foods to arrive at the door in full view of the guests to deliver the "local" food. Local to Wiltshire, I guess. (For the benefit of my transatlantic friends, Wiltshire is almost as far from the Highlands of Scotland as it is possible to be without getting wet.) They thought that "home comforts" might indeed describe a paper bath mat with a picture of feet, but not enough room on the floor to put it. And that when we pointed out that the cereal bowl was encrusted with brown stuff, it was an adequate explanation to say, with a laugh, "Oh! That'll be the toffee sauce!" (Yeah, well wash it, maybe?) They thought that it was OK to provide a bed with no obvious mattress, so that every time you unthinkingly sat on it you staved in another two vertebrae. And that the sodding Wiltshire Farm Foods van could happily recharge its refrigerator battery all night outside a guest bedroom and that the answer to the bleary complaint from the guests could reasonably be, "Oh! That'll be the freezer lorry!"

And if you haven't got the picture yet, these deluded hoteliers really thought that whatever the shortcomings of their crappy hotel, at least the guests would wake each morning and comfort themselves with the happy thought, "Praise be! There's a Corby trouser press!" Because, if you can't have decent food and a mattress and a double bed big enough for two people, you can at least have a perfect crease in your crimplene trousers.

The point being, caller, that there are aspiring authors out there - and I ask you to search your souls and ask yourselves whether you might be among them - who are making the equivalent mistakes: you're trying really hard, but there are editors and agents somewhere who are doing the equivalent of crunching their vertebra as they clunk down on your heavy prose or bite eagerly on your disappointing, salty, recently-thawed and ready-plated meal .... (The clue to the ready-platedness came in the answer to one guest's request to have a salad instead of veg: "But it comes with veg.")

"It comes with veg" is the equivalent of "My friends have read it and loved it".

"That'll be the freezer lorry" is the equivalent of "This is just a first draft and any mistakes can be sorted during editing."

"At least there's a Corby trouser press!" is the equivalent of "At least there are adjectives. Shame about the plot. And characters, Oh, and voice, pace and style."

Thing is - and here's the main point - there's one thing those deluded idiots should do in order to discover what they're doing wrong: they should go and stay in good quality places. Someone who knows about good hotels and taste and decent fresh food should show them the light and let them imbibe the wonderfulness of a good hostelry (whether simple or luxury: it doesn't matter) and let them see for themselves how it's done. Not just in one trip but in several: see how guests feel comfortable and why not crushing your vertebrae is a happy thing.

And the equivalent for aspiring readers is to read good writing, often, lovingly and admiringly. Any aspiring writer in doubt should ask an expert in their genre what to read and then go out there and read, read, read. Read while working out what is good and wonderful and gripping and powerful about this writing, and work out how this can transfer to your own work and what you might be missing.

See, not being a deluded hotelier is easy if you open your eyes and immerse yourself in the world you want to be part of. Same with not being a deluded writer: don't stop reading, reading, reading all the stuff that's being praised in your genre. Be critical but most of all, enjoy good writing: it's the best way to become a good writer.

It's not easy to write a novel, but then it shouldn't be. Would you want it to be easy?

But, once you've scaled the mountain, the view from the top is seriously worth the effort.

Sorry, that was a corny analogy, but I wanted to show you the pic.

And then there was the dog on the beach, which has absolutely no point in this blog post, but is quite cute:


Jane Smith said...

Nicola, I blogged about some research which discussed this last summer. Here's a link:

The research shows that in order to appreciate how bad you are at something you need to develop a bit of skill at it first: otherwise you don't realise just how wide you are of the mark.

Meanwhile I know very well just how bad I am. I'm an embarrassment to myself, and all around me. Especially when there's a drink in my hand.

Barb said...

At least the mountain was locally sourced!

I have found a trend in writers who are unaware of their failings to extensively show their work to family, friends and new writer critique groups. Not surprisingly the responses are all favourable, so what the writer has always suspected is true - they are a genius. The random person who knows what they are talking about rocks that view and, of course, must be wrong.

Those that are trying to seriously and humbly find a way to publication are looking for advice and feedback from professionals in the business. I'm not interested in presenting my work to my nearest and dearest until it is the best I can achieve - they deserve to read the final product. Giving them a copy of the book or sheets of A4 full of errors - no contest really.

On top of this, some writers have a mismatch between what they want to achieve and how it can be achieved. When you give advice that will make a ms more attractive to readers and therefore more likely to get published, some react in horror at the idea of being more commercial.

"But I am artiste, darhling.' Yeah well, good luck with that. Only your mother and your cat are going to read it (and kitty is only doing it for capnip).

There's writing what you want to write and there's writing something that is likely to get published. I am sure that it is very rare that the two perfectly align.

Anna May said...

Hi Nicola, loving your blog. It took me a long time to stop thinking that I had to be really good to get published - and that notion was a major inhibitor for me. Now I believe that I'm good enough, that's all, and it works for me.
Anna May x

ps: did you mean 'anals' or 'annals' ? It works either way....

Sarah said...

Great post! Though I'm horribly jealous. I've wanted to visit the Highlands for a while, perhaps hike the West HIghland Way. (And bless you for explaining about Wiltshire! I would've had to look that up.)

My latest submission to my critique group (go Slushbusters!) took a beating last meeting. They pointed out some key weaknesses ,comparing them to several very well written books, by the way. It's never fun to be in that position- but boy, will my story be better for it. As I've said to myself before, it's good to be around people who don't recognize my genius.

(Good thing I'm a humble genius...)

And then, just as I was wondering how to go about fixing those issues, Janet Reid posted a link to writing website that has been really helpful. Here's the site- perhaps others might find it helpful as well:

Rebecca said...

Beautiful pics, and wonderful advice.

pinkgecko said...

Fantastic. I love this Blog for the honesty and great advice. There is nothing better than honest criticism of your work. So often people raise points that completely change your outlook on a piece.

Nicola Morgan said...

Jane and Sarah - great links - thanks.

Annamay - anals! (and now I've put "sic" in, just so it's clear!) And you make a good point about "good enough" being good enough, cos it is, given the right story and hook and market.

Sarah - good for you for taking that beating. (Mind you, remember that lots of people will not like a published book too)

Pinkgecko and rebecca - good!

Barb - good attitude! I hope you can also write what you love and get published (worked for me - once I'd put the reader first, I found that actually that wasn't a compromise after all)

HelenMHunt said...

But I'm sure if I could just get Simon Cowell to look at my novel, I'd be in with a chance! No?

Thanks for another great post. I know I have a very long way to go, but you do make it seem possible!

Ebony McKenna. said...

I completely agree.
But of course, you wouldn't be talking about me, would you, hahahaha

Nice pics too.

Sarah said...

Glad you liked the link!

As far as the beating went, it wasn't a matter of taste or preference, but of doing a poor job with the main character. The beating was well deserved.

But I just discovered a quote that absolutely fits what you just said. Our blog interviewed Lisa Greenwald. (Her book, My Life in Pink and Green, debuted in March.) She said the best advice she read was from Meg Cabot: "You're not a $100 bill. Not everyone is going to like you...or your book."

Michael Malone said...

Great post, Nicola. I'm new to your blog and loving it. Keep up the good work. And Gillian is gonna whup your ass with the nanowrimo. Or so she tells me.

Nicola Morgan said...

Michael - Gillian is all talk. She doesn't stand a chance! Thanks for the comments re the blog and thanks for dropping by. Even if you are only trying to distract me from the nanowrimo to give that Highlander a chance ...

Gareth said...

Gorgeous photos.

A question - where can I find a list of "good" fiction in my genre (Y/A supernatural/horror/action etc) I've read perhaps 20 or so such novels and the quality varies to say the least but they're all properly published - even the "tell - don't - show then sumarise with a lot of adjectives/adverbs and emotions word" ones.

Should I be trawling award winners etc... if so, any idea which awards?

Nice to have you back from your hols by the way - well done for leaving the lap top.

Nicola Morgan said...

Gareth - ah, good question, but one I can't answer very well, as it's not my genre, or at least horror isn't. As for award-winners, unfortunately supernatural, horror and action are also not well represented on award lists. So, I suppose that rather than judging it with the word "good", let's be more objective and say "successful". Obviously Anthony Horowitz is hugely successful, both in the action and supernatural/horror areas (Power of Five series for the latter two). Robert Muchamore and Charlie Higson both on the action side (though i do wonder how far Higson would have got if he hadn't already been where he was). Tim Bowler's new Blade series is YA action and he's a v well respected writer for his other stuff too, which touches on the supernatural. Kevin Brooks is top end quality and some of his I think you'd call "action", though they're cerebral too - have you read Candy, or Kissing the Rain? Catherine Forde also write great YA stuff, which I feel would be enjoyed by someone who wanted "action", though again she's also literary. Keith Gray and Ally Kennen ditto. Of all those, only Horowitz does horror. Is that a start? And I suppose that in the absence of awards, "good" really ends up meaning "published" even if what is published is often NOT good ...

Helen P said...

Nicola, I'm new to your blog too and love it but it's a bit scary! I'll be worrying for the next few days just how bad I am at writing. All I know is, four months ago I couldn't run as fast as my nose and now I can run five kilometres and CHAT AT THE SAME TIME. Which is my way of agreeing with you: practise, practise and practise some more until you're half way decent at what you're doing; writing or running.

Leigh Russell said...

I don't understand why so many people are so desperate to be published. It sounds wonderful to be so successful that you can give up your day job and write full time, but the reality isn't quite like that. As a full-time author, you spend so much time touring round promoting your work, that you don't have any more time for writing than before. It's fun being published, and the kudos is gratifying, but the real buzz is writing!.

Leigh Russell said...

I should add, you're welcome to visit my blog about my rollercoaster journey from first picking up a pen two years ago to becoming a published author - it happened to me, it could happen to you! I'll be hosting a Virtual Book Launch in June and you're welcome to come over and join in.

Melinda Szymanik said...

So what are you really trying to say about my writing?

But seriously, aren't the Deluded an expected part of the whole process. What would happen if every manuscript in the slushpile was a polished gem with a signicant-sized prospective audience?

Sally Zigmond said...

Great post, Nicola and so, so true. I've seen it too many times. It also shows that good writers such as yourself (see? I got that bit in early), even when suffering a holiday from Hell, can turn it to their advantage.

I think you should name and shame...

Fawn Neun said...

Isn't Wiltshire in England? *headscritch*

It's impossible not to be close to your own work, although I'm sure all intelligent writers suspect that what they've done could be written off as hopeless. It's impossible to be objective ENOUGH. I don't have my mother read my work; I've seen the rubbish she enjoys, bless her! Besides, she'll figure out I've had sex and liked it.

After having seen some of what does get published, it's almost just as impossible to not feel delighted with what you've done.

It's a roller coaster. It really is.

Gareth said...

Thanks for the list, Nicola - a great start... How do you know so much off the top of your head about a genre that isn't even yours? I'd better get rid of the kids and coursework marking and do some quality reading!

Nicola Morgan said...

Leigh - re why we are desperate to be published: because being a writer isn't about the words on the page but about communicating them and connecting with readers. If we write just for the act of writing, we might as well shout in the void, but a real writer writes to be heard, which means publication. I agree, there is a stage of writing and an element of it which is about expression but if that's all it is then that's rather self-absorbed, and self-absorbed does not a great writer make. Mmm, I feel a post coming on!

Fawn - yes, it is in England! But you can travel to it from Scotland without getting wet (unless it rains, which it probably will). And no, it's not impossible to be objective enough - it's essential to learn be objective enough, which is not to say perfectly objective but sufficiently. And I must do another post on the crap that's published - because actually it's more interesting that simply being crap ...

gareth - yeah, get rid of the kids - great idea!!

Helen P - don't be scared!! Or do be, but face the fear anyway ... And sometimes, it's not even only about practising but about growing and waiting. And still being around when inspiration strikes.

Sally - oh no; see, I only pretend to be scary. Really I'm a wimp.