Sunday, 31 May 2009


I have talked before about how getting a contract is not the end of the story, and that there then ensues all the unavoidable promotional stuff. I was wrong. I have been wasting my time with all the stupid things I've been doing to promote a book (the name of which I cannot tell you) which may or may not be published some time soonish, on a day which I will not reveal. My lips are sealed. In the words of the waiter from Barcelona, "I know nothing."

It was all going so well - the publicity for this nameless book - and I'd even, to my shame and horror, had some lovely reviews on places like that big book-selling website that everyone goes on about. Then, on Saturday, I read the papers and discovered, in a horrible flash of gah-ness, that I'd got it all wrong.

Here's the story that shook my world. After five years of fevered anticipation by readers, Haruki Murakami's new novel, IQ84, has been published. The flood of advance orders meant that his publishers had to increase the initial print-run to 480,000. The secret to this stunning success? Secrecy. Silence. Nothing. Yep, he totally refused to say anything about it. Ever. For five years and all the way up to publication, he zipped his mouth and swanned around eating sushi and drinking rice wine. (I made that up: for all I know, he could be teetotal. After all, a writer with the self-control not to mention his book? You couldn't do that if you were sober.)

Now this is the sort of publicity campaign I could quite easily be attracted to. It's a bit late, but from now on my lips are sealed. I will not tell you anything, not one teensy item, not even the title, about my new booky thing that's possibly published on Monday, or Tuesday, or thereabouts. I've no idea where you can buy it and if I see any copies I will hide them behind someone else's titles. Everything I have already said about the book is a lie. Someone said it's Book of the Month in some **poxy shop - well, pah to that. If you read any reviews before publication, they are fabricated. Any videos you find are probably created by a jealous rival, just to throw you off the scent.

I will from now on be a woman of extreme mystery. One day, I will be like Shakespeare and everyone will argue about whether I was really the writer of a book called ... Or maybe even Homer and people will argue about whether I existed.

Sometimes, I have wondered this myself.

** No offence, Vanessa - all in the interests of not identifying the shop, which could never in a million years be called poxy.

Friday, 29 May 2009


I bring you a blog that I like
, partly because a "stroppy author" sounds as though she would get on very well with a "crabbit old bat". I feel we could share many glasses of wine and bars of chocolate together and still not finish being stroppy and crabbit.

So, here it is: The Stroppy Author's Guide to Publishing.

Her words of stroppy wisdom are directed at those of you who are either published (but still confused - and this will apply for a very long time after publication, perhaps even for ever) or on the verge of being so (many of you), or keen to know how to deal with it if you were. And that should include all of you, because it is never too early to learn, though it is sometimes too late. Or at least later than it might more happily have been.

Spurred on by the growing pressure from my blog readers (bleeders? breeders?) to impress them with my boots if ever I am spotted in public, I was going to go boot-hunting today, following the tantalising advice of Barb, but it's so sunny that instead I am going to have to expose my legs in the garden. And if that is not a sufficiently frightening thought to keep you all firmly indoors working on your WIP, I don't know what is.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009


I promised that I would soon hit you with a post which would improve your writing. Big Mistake 1, you'll doubtless remember, was back in February, when I talked about making mistakes with voice. This Big Mistake "series" aims to point you towards the commonest mistakes in otherwise decent manuscripts, the things that so often stop them pressing the necessary ecstasy buttons for an editor or agent to say "OH YES!"

This lesson is aimed at already decent writers, not those whose writing is at a level of direness which you cannot imagine. (Unless you've seen a website that I recently gawped at. Put it this way: supposing its author decided to go down the vanity publishing route; this would be a) the only way she stands a chance of getting published and b) akin to Medusa paying for some glamour photos to be done as a birthday present to herself.)

Sorry, but I needed to get that off my chest. There are some seriously deluded idiots out there; please tell me you are not among them.

Anyway. Pace is one of the things that perfectly decent writers often fail to analyse in their own work and is, thankfully, one of the easiest things to fix.
In fact, so easily might you be able to fix it, that I would not be surprised if this post alone does not propel at least one of you to publication. Go, go, go! If one of you gets published, I will feel like a midwife, which would be rather lovely (in some ways, though not in others). I could get to be at the birth - otherwise known as champagne-drenched launch party.

What is pace? Where will you find it?

Pace is not always fast; nor does it have to be. Pace consists of controlling the variety of speeds with which the action happens and with which the reader reads. And you find it in any book where you keep wanting to turn the page.

Hold onto that thought because it's your ability to make the reader want to turn the page, instead of just turning down the corner of it prior to going to sleep, which is your whole aim as an author. Regardless of whether you write crime fiction or romance, kids' books, comedy, literary fiction or whatever - including non-fiction - you want your readers to keep going. And if you get the pace wrong, they won't.

Clearly, some books move faster than others. Some genres require a faster pace throughout: action stories, thrillers, books for teenagers, chick-lit - all require more foot on the accelerator more of the time, because that's what their readers are there for.

But no readers respond well to a constant fast pace. After all, if it's fast all the time, how do you get your reader's heart racing faster for your climactic scenes? How do you create suspense if every page is a sprint? You must play with the reader. You must think: where do I want the reader to become breathless with anticipation? When will I allow him to relax before upping the pace again? How many times will I do this and how often? If we have a really fast bit here, what happens when we get to the scene later which I want to be even more intense and dramatic?

So, pace is about control. Pace is a tool, one of the most important tools in keeping the reader going.
Now, I can't decide for you where your fast or slow bits should come, because I don't know your story-line. (Please don't tell me). Only you know that, and it should be obvious to you. But, once you have worked out which are your big scenes and paciest bits, I can give you some tips for how to control the pace at those times.

Technique 1 - chapter ends

You can change the whole pace of a section (or whole book) by simply changing where you end your chapters. Think of a chapter as a breath. If your chapter depicts a complete episode, the reader starts by inhaling, reaches the top of the breath (the climax of the episode), then exhales to the end of the chapter, at which point he relaxes. And quite possibly turns out the light and goes to sleep. Which is fine - your reader needs to sleep. But, what if you don't want him to sleep now? What if this is supposed to be a fast bit where you want your readers breathless with excitement? Simple: end your chapter mid-breath. So, end it before the climax, at a point where the reader cannot relax.
Do that a few times, and you've created a really fast-moving section. You've upped the pace. Try it: go through your book messing around with your chapter ends.

Technique 2 - chapter lengths
Fast sections = short chapters. Simple. Make the reader sit up. Make the reader read another one.
Can't stop themselves. Just one more. And one more. And now they're really into the story. You've got 'em.

Technique 3 - sentence lengths

One common mistake of not-good-enough writers is having sentences that are all the same length. (And same structure, but we'll tackle that another day.) It slows everything down (if they're all quite long) and makes it monotonous (even if all short and breathless). The simple rule is: short when you want to increase the pace. Again, it's about breathlessness.

You can also extend the technique to paragraph lengths. So, for a particularly dramatic fast bit, you might have a series of very short sentences, each on a new line. I did this in my next novel (not Deathwatch - the next one, Wasted.) Let me show you, and bear in mind that this is the most dramatic moment of the book, which the reader has been waiting for for a long time:

There is a moment of emptiness. It is a fraction of space, when one thing ends and another begins. Laughter stops, punched in the face, shocked.

Jess’s body freezes.

Breath holds.

One jetski.

It is coming.



The beach.

Jack is standing now.
His back to the sea.


The rider’s face.

But then.


Trying to turn.


A spray of froth.

A flash of red.

OK, that's a bit extreme but this is a novel where much of the book has a dreamlike, headachey quality, a thick summer feel with the menace of thunder, and when I need to gear up I use what I call the Ferrari Method - (well, I'm calling it that now) - a super turbo-charged shock to the reader.
That particular example shows something else about Ferraris - you can hear them coming, but there's not enough time to get out of the way. The build up of short sentences lets you know, absolutely know, that something horrible is just about to happen.

Alternatively, you could also use Fire-cracker method, where the short sentences come out of the blue, in the middle of some long sentences. Earlier in Wasted, I do this when a pigeon flies through the window ... (Something of which, as you know, I have considerable experience). I give absolutely no warning of this and both my agent and editor commented on this as being the most shocking moment because the reader is not ready. Bearing in mind that there are a considerable number of far more shocking moments, a pigeon is doing a pretty good job if it over-takes human disaster on the shock stakes.

Technique 4 - controlling tense
Now, this isn't exactly a technique but it's something that affects pace in ways which are worth looking at. The easier tenses to handle are the past tenses. No one has a problem with these. Using the present tense is much trickier, and creates its own atmosphere which is (surprisingly?) not always one of greater speed and immediacy. It can sometimes feel detached. So, with the present tense, you need to be even cleverer about controlling pace. I don't recommend the present tense unless you really know what you're doing. There are too many pitfalls
and many readers are put off by it.

Whichever tense you are using, Technique 5 comes into play.

Technique 5 - chopping words
When you want a particular section to feel very immediate, you could omit bits of sentences altogether, usually subjects, articles, or finite verbs. Don't do this too much, or it becomes irritating; and if you do it, as I do, it needs to be a recognised part of your style, not something you just inserted for effect on page 178.)
Here's a bit from Deathwatch. The bits in red are where I've left words out, deliberately to increase pace. The bit in blue is technique 6.

The towpath was narrow here, backed by a high wall. No escape. She looked behind her. The barge was nearly at this bank. She could just make out the figure of the woman at the helm. Hear her voice but not her words. She didn’t want to hear her words.

She ran, pummelling the air, cold wind in her throat, rain running down her face, pain in her lungs. Straining to hear any sounds behind her. No sound of the boat, not any more. It must be at the bank. The woman would be leaping off. She would be only seconds behind."

Technique 6 - running phrases

That sentence in blue could have been separate "sentences". (Yes, I know, not technically sentences, since they lack finite verbs, but I could have separated them with full-stops/periods). And that would work too. But in some ways this method creates a smoother speed, not a jerky breathless one. Here, the character is running sucessfully - she feels powerful. If I'd made them separate staccato sentences, I'd have created a more breathless and desperate effect, but I'm saving that for later ...

Please don't think I'm setting myself up as in any way a perfect writer. No, no, no. I look all my published books, including the new one which is looking at me accusingly right now, and think, "ARGHHH, why didn't I change that bit or notice this bit?" No, what I want to do is show you how carefully you have to look at your writing at every level, from overall structure down to individual word and punctuation point, in order to be in control of your pace.

See, if you can't control your pace with absolute precision, you've lost your reader. And, published or unpublished, you cannot afford to do that.

Now, on a personal note, I am feeling very much under pressure, and not for any reason you might guess. Last night, I was accosted in a bar (in the nicest possible way), by a very interesting and personable person who asked me if I was Nicola Morgan, "because" she read my blog. We then had a really good chat, but what was disconcerting was that she said she recognised me from my boots. Considering that the boots in question have never featured in this blog (though others have), this was remarkable. Anyway, she said she knew I'd be in this bar because I'd put it on Twitter and on my blog, and she thought to herself, "Hmm, if Nicola is there, she'll be bound to be wearing great boots." So, she must have gone around the bar looking at everyone's feet. I feel a little like Cinderella.

Anyway, if I'm going to be held to account by the gloriousness of my boots, this puts me under some extra pressure, to which there is really only one answer: I'd really better go and buy some more.

Monday, 25 May 2009


I was/am halfway through writing a Very Useful Post for you, on the important subject of controlling pace. I know you must be on tenterhooks about this but meanwhile I just came across a Very Useful and Thought-Provoking Post by someone else.

I am going to post that VUTPP here, before my own words of wisdom tomorrow or Wednesday, not because I am derelicting my duty to you, but because amongst many true points in his piece, Joshua Mohr makes one in particular: "I need only concern myself with one thing: the quality of my writing. That isn’t chance at all. I can’t control marketing trends or debutantes, but I can control the amount of energy I put into my revision process. I can take my time and make sure to write the best book I can."

I cannot tell you how right he is and what a wise decision he has made. Well, in fact, I can tell you. And indeed am. Otherwise, why would I be writing this post?

One of my most trenchant beliefs is that too many unpublished writers take up too much time too early trying to find out how to approach publishers/agents, and not enough time early enough accepting that they have to improve their writing first.

Anyway, trust me, it's the writing what counts, and only when we've got that right is it worth approaching a publisher or agent. Before that, it's embarrassing, because one of two things will happen: a) you'll be rejected or b) you'll have your rubbishy writing published and be mortified when the reviews appear. Or don't appear.

Joshua also says: "Turns out, chance is a brutal part of the publishing trade. Good books sometimes vanish without a trace, and obvious, dumbed-down books with clever marketing tricks often become successful. It’s a savage reality of the business, one writers need to be aware of."

Again, spot on. Or "back of the net", as we say over here, which I once had to explain to my transatlantic friends.

So, since chance plays a big part, would any of us make that chance even smaller by not making our writing as good as possible and doing absolutely everything necessary to do so? Only the deluded idiots amongst us. And there are some, but surely they're not still reading this blog? I aimed to frighten them off long ago. Which is good, because one of them won't see what I'm planning to say about her/him in my forthcoming Very Useful Post.

(Edited to add: Sally Zigmond makes the same point over on The Elephant in the Writing-Room about the need to work more on our writing before expecting publication. She is another author who deserves to succeed. I didn't mention this at first because I am still blushing about her kind words about me in it, but I decided that it was more important that I send you over to her blog anyway. She has lots of useful insights. In fact, the very title of her blog makes the point: that the thing that is staring us in the face but which we too often don't talk about enough is the need to write better.)

Meanwhile, there's a lot we can learn from Joshua's blog post and I wish him success with Some Things That Meant The World To Me. I also wish success to Two Dollar Radio, the small independent publisher which is publishing Joshua because they believe in the quality of his writing even if bigger houses didn't think the book would sell enough to satisfy them. Which is not to knock big publishing houses either - big houses have big heating bills - but simply to say that there are plenty of readers out there who want something a bit special and I care that all types of book and reader should be catered for.

Anyway, my point in offering you his wisdom, apart from its obvious truth, is to prepare you for the fact that my next post will really be a writing lesson. Unless something else comes up, of course. I know I should be thinking about book launches, but I've got to have something to take my mind off the Litopia interviews that are going out this week. I don't know what I said - it's all a blur, largely because marauding dogs were running around behind me, dragging heavy chains in quite a threatening way, which is not something I'm used to in the genteel part of Morningside in which I live.

Sunday, 24 May 2009


Look, I really will get on with some trenchant and perceptive advice about improving your publishability. Soon. Honestly. Probably on Tuesday. But first, I had such fun today. After telling you yesterday (scroll down one post - save me linking) about Lynn Price's hilarious promo video for her forthcoming book, The Writer's Essential Tackle Box, I investigated the software she'd used. I felt I should.

A couple of hours (well, OK, four hours) later, I had come up with my own effort. And if there's got to be a "learning point" in every post on this blog, it is this: that getting published is only the beginning. Life from then on becomes one heady round of "interviews" and associated madness.

I had a long list of things to do today and this wasn't on it. But it was much more fun.

Oh, and still don't forget to try to win your free copy of the Writer's Handbook. Your deadline is Thursday.

Thursday, 21 May 2009


Every now and then laziness overcomes me. Luckily, this usually happens when someone has just done something so clever and useful that the most clever and useful thing I can do is tell you about it and then go back to sleep.

So, if you have ever wondered about the maths (or math, for you over yonder ocean) of royalties and advances and foreign rights and returns and all sorts of other bogglingness, please travel over to Editorial Ass here, for the detailed rundown on what it all means and what you can expect/hope for/dream of/fear when you eventually see your treasured WIP hit the shelves. As you surely will if you keep listening to my advice and acting on it.

It simultaneously answers the question that the unagented among you often ask: Why do I need an agent? Maths/math is why. That and a lot of other things, such as calming pissed-off authors down when stuff happens, as you can be sure it will. Stuff has a habit of doing that.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009


I found that each time I got a rejection letter, I would actually groan. The sound slid out as if someone had physically squashed me. It's horrible. I guess I'll get no disagreement there.
At this point, you have some choices:
  1. be delusional - take the view that you're brilliant and they don't know a thing
  2. be crushed - take the view that you're crap and they're right and you are not worthy to lick the stamp on the next submission
  3. be practical - work out why you were rejected and do something about it
Most rejection letters fit into one of these categories:
  1. No.
  2. No, sorry, but our list is full.
  3. No, this is not the sort of book we publish.
  4. We thought about this carefully and it has many qualities, but we don't feel strongly enough about it.
  5. We thought about this carefully and it has many qualities; however this, this and this are not quite right. We would be happy to see it again if you were to think of re-writing with those points in mind.
There is a subtext behind each of them. Sometimes, one rejection letter of a particular sort is not enough to go on. Several in the same vein should tell you something. 700 rejection letters of any sort should tell you a great deal ... (See the Behlerblog for this extraordinary story of idiot delusion.)

1. The subtext behind "No" is "this isn't a book we can publish/sell." There are many reasons why this may be the case.
  • you may not be a good enough writer
  • you may be a goodish writer or even a very good one, but your book is not right
  • either because it doesn't fit a pre-existing category, or because it's not original enough (yes, I know - contradictory reasons there, but this is the real world, not Narnia); or because it's old-fashioned, or because it doesn't have a USP / hook / anything about it which will make it easy to sell in enough quantities to cover costs
  • but, whatever, you have not grabbed them sufficiently for them to bother to encourage you
  • (very often they are terrified of giving detailed feedback of any sort because far too often authors retaliate with vitriol
  • but also because of the sheer size of the slush pile)
2. The "list is full" excuse is usually a red herring. Yes, the list may be full, but if your writing is good enough and it is the sort of book they'd have wanted if the list wasn't full, the publisher will not lose you in such a cavalier fashion. So, the subtext behind this is "this isn't a book we can publish/sell, and your writing isn't great enough for us to want to snap you up anyway." So, your book is not good enough - even though (and remember this) you may be a good enough writer; you just haven't shown your writing skills well or, perhaps more importantly, provided the vehicle of a good enough story.

3. The third category (the "not the sort of book we publish" one) indicates one thing: you're an idiot - you should have done your research and sent it to the right publisher. So, please go to the bottom of the class.

4. Obviously this one (the one about good qualities) is more positive. They wouldn't say this if it wasn't true, so pin it to your board and cover it with sparkly things. But, clearly, it's still a rejection... As briefly as possible, here are the things you need to consider.
  • this is not about whether your book is better or worse than half the rubbish that IS published, so don't trot out that old chestnut. This is about whether a human being who is also an expert in selling books LOVES your book enough to fight for it in all the meetings that will have to happen before your book gets to market. See my post here and here and Lynn Price's here.
  • it has to be not only a book the editor loves and believes in, but also one that fits the lists and the plans of that particular publishing company at that time.
  • although "worse" books than your rejected one are often published, understand why I put "worse" in quote marks. It's not about "better" or "worse": it's about being right for an intended group of readers. Readers of chick-lit want something different from readers of Margaret Atwood. If a publisher sold chick-lit readers a Margaret Atwood, the readers would say it was crap and wouldn't recommend or buy it. So, your book might not be as "good" as a Margaret Atwood and therefore not "good" enough to be literary fiction, but much more "literary" than a chick-lit novel, and therefore not "good enough chick-lit". You have to know exactly who your intended readers are and write for them. So, you may well have written a "better" book than some of what you consider to be published drivel, but it's still not the right book for the right market.
5. The last one (the "re-writing" one) is obviously also very positive. Take it extremely seriously, but be sure that you understand and agree with the suggested changes before you do anything. If you don't agree, you won't be able to do it properly. However, be careful about pestering editors at this stage, since they have to deal with existing projects and the last thing you want to be is needy-seeming or irritating. It's fine to send ONE briefish email to check that you understand what they're saying, but after that you should keep quiet until you've done the work, unless they say they're happy to correspond more often. Often, a suggestion by the editor is a light-bulb moment, when you suddenly realise what's wrong with the book. A light-bulb moment is a wonderful thing and even if the publisher later turns you down, you will have improved your book.

Essentially, behind all these rejection letters is one message: you got it wrong. Sometimes you were just unlucky. But most often, it's simple: your writing is not (yet?) right.

If you want to do know just how hard it is and how hard you have to work to write better, I recommend the blog of a writer who is so close to having her novel published in that hardest of markets, literary fiction, that I am holding my breath for her. Sally Zigmond, who writes the wonderful and wonderfully-titled Elephant in the Writing-Room blog, understands all of the above perfectly. She has a quiet and determined belief in what she does, knowing that the responsibility for perfecting her work is in her hands alone. Sally deserves to be published, and I'm not just saying that because she has generously reviewed Deathwatch, both on her other blog and Amazon, and has even used a bit of it as a writing lesson. She knows that publication is all about the writing, that we can't carry on making excuses or ignoring advice, and that the best thing an aspiring author can do is spend time honing those words until readers are dragged into and then trapped by the story.

We too often think about getting published as a means to acquiring readers. But we should see it the other way round: think of your readers first, because if you don't, you won't be published. (Subject of forthcoming post.)

Motto for the day: getting published is not about wowing a publisher; it's about wowing readers. The more clearly we believe that, the better.

Sunday, 17 May 2009


After what I've done in the last 24 hours, it's hard to be rational, but I will do my best because this must be a Very Serious Post. Before that, though, I know you are clamouring to know what I've done that was so taxing: a seriously serious radio programme - all my previous forays into radio being comparatively doddly and unserious, usually involving me talking about myself or my books, two subjects on which I am quite literally the world expert. No, this was the Shereen Programme, BBC Scotland's Sunday morning current affairs prog, where the news and papers are discussed intellectually by some erudite guests, plus, on this occasion, me. So, I had to spend yesterday trying to read every story on MPs' expenses, MPs' expenses, MPs' expenses, KatiePrice+PeterAndré's surprise (que?) divorce, and Eurovision.

So tired was I after being forced to watch the WHOLE of Eurovision on my own (no one else would join me) and consequently getting to bed late and not quite sober, and then getting up at 5am, that when we got to Katie Price, I had a bit of a rant. I am now in hiding in case she understands the bit about "plastic body and plastic brain". I was surprisingly well-briefed on KP, having spent all of three minutes on her pink and sparkly website (well, the bits I could get into without paying the sub - from which, btw, she earns a tidy £20,000 a month, even after she's reduced her sub because she is "taking into account the current financial situation everybody is experiencing.") To save you from having to look at even the free bits of this piece of tat (the website, not the woman ... or, on the other hand ...), I will quote my fav bit: "My no-nonsense approach has earned me the status of "thinking man's crumpet" as well as making me a strong, realistic, female icon for ordinary girls and women."

Your mind stoppped boggling yet? Lock up your daughters. Esp bearing in mind that 85% of visitors to her website are women. Including me.

Clearly, I enormously digress and must now come right down to earth.

Writing in a Recession

I was drawn to this topic for two reasons. First, it's the title of a talk I'm involved with in the Edinburgh Book Festival (in an organisational and chairing capacity, rather than having to think of anything profound to say, fortunately - we're leaving that to Mark Le Fanu, the General Sec of the SoA); and second, Sally Zigmond recently did a poignant post about how her was-to-be-published-soon book has been buggered by the recession.

So, how are writers being affected by the financial situation and what, if anything, can we do about it?

1. Some publishers are certainly behaving differently. Some (as I know through work with the Society of Authors) are pulling out of contracts; others are taking longer to make decisions. But, let's unpick this and see what we can say, a bit more specifically.
  • pulling out of contracts sometimes masks pre-existing weakness in that company
  • and is sometimes an unnecessary reaction
  • taking longer to make decisions is often simply rabbit behaviour. Sometimes, rabbit behaviour is wise. If you're a rabbit. But it sometimes isn't, especially if the thing chasing you is another rabbit.
  • sometimes, taking longer to make decisions is a good idea because many decisions should be reached slowly and a decision reached slowly may well be the right one
  • sometimes, for a publisher to pull out of a contract is a seriously stupid thing to do. In this case, for the author, it's a good thing, though it may not seem like it, because that publisher was a seriously stupid publisher and you really do not want to be with a seriously stupid publisher.
  • of course, sometimes it is a wise decision and genuinely necessary
2. Is this bad or good?
  • Obviously, it feels bad. Especially if you're the one who's just been dumped. In which case it's going to feel seriously rubbish.
  • On the other hand, too many books are published (and everyone in the know agrees with this - in fact, there are more and more being published every month, even now) and the more carefully publishers think about their decisions, the more likely they are to pick books that will sell, which is what they have to try to do.
  • BUT, trouble is, there are certain genres, very wonderful genres, which sell in small numbers and are more likely to be hit in a recession. (Lit Fic being the prime example. And Lit Fic is very very important.) So, this is bad news for them.
  • On the other hand, this creates a survival of the fittest situation, which is arguably good ...
  • ... unless you're the unlucky gene that gets gobbled. (I don't think that was the word Darwin used, but he was a bit old-fashioned and those stiff collars made it hard to say words like that.)
  • Some enterprising smaller publishers see this as an opportunity, because they're lean and clean and know exactly what works and how to sell it, even if it is gem-quality Lit Fic. Lynn Price of Behler Publications made this point when commenting below Jane Smith's post about how to beat the recession. (Thank you, Jane, you inspirational person, you!)
  • And some big publishers who are well-run and also lean and clean will also do fine in this situation too.
So, things are not as gloomy as you may be led to believe.

And, if we're clever and calm and if we're, most importantly, brilliant writers, there are things we can do to help our own situation, whether published or not yet.

What should authors do to survive and thrive in this recession?
There are three main things, and you should consider how they each apply to you before rejecting them. If you reject them all, that would be foolish and you'd deserve to fail. That would be not so much rabbit behaviour as ostrich behaviour.
  1. Look extra carefully at your MS and your work in general. Everything about good writing applies even more when the barrier is set higher, as it is. See this high barrier as an incentive, not a brick wall. Read everything you can about how to write the best possible book within your genre; practise as much and as open-mindedly as you can; read everything you can that's being published now within that genre; be the most critical judge of your own work that you can possibly be, and do your utmost to get it read by someone you absolutely trust. (People in the know - people working in the business, or published writers within your genre. Honest people. Not friends and family.) This might be the time to consider some form of course (we're also doing an event on that at the Ed Book Fest ... details of all our events coming v soon) - but it must be the right one for you, and be taught by genuine professionals, published authors or people in the writing industry.
  2. Understand your genre and its marketability and consider carefully whether you should branch out and work within another genre, either as well or instead. Now, I know this is a horrible thought if, for example, you passionately believe in the value of Lit Fic (as you would be right to). But you have to be realistic: if your sort of writing is not selling, then you may set yourself an unreachable target by continuing to try. My advice is: continue to write your beautiful Lit Fic, but at the same time write something else, something that might sell. This achieves several aims: publication will boost your morale hugely, publication may give you a foot in the door to other types of publication, and you may discover a hidden talent in and love for something else.
  3. Boost your writing profile by selling articles, short stories, fillers, anything. If you've done research, use it for something else. Your novel could inspire a short story. Magazines and newspapers are always looking for short fillers. Talk to someone in that industry or look at the many books and websites that give you insights. Writing a blog is useful - it keeps you writing, gets your name out there, helps you meet other authors, and can lead to something else. Note that I said "writing profile" not income - of course, income would be nice, and I'd never suggest you sell yourself short, but this is about getting your writing out there, and sometimes the pay just is crap. Most writers do also need "proper" jobs, at least at first.
In short, be realistic, be active and pro-active, be positive. Don't be like a rabbit or an ostrich. A recession can be an opportunity for talent to float to the top. Grasp that opportunity - but first, hone that talent. Talent has never been more necessary than it is now - though nor has luck. Only a few people get where they want with luck and no talent.

I can think of an example, but I would prefer not to think about the plastic one any more today.

Thursday, 14 May 2009


I could beat myself up about how long it is since my last post, or I could gloat about having spent some days in Paris and the north of Scotland, (all in the course of authory duty, naturally).

Or I could do neither and just tell you something useful.

In my usual kindly way, I will tell you something useful and then I will make a comment or three prompted by an inappropriate and unwelcome sight on my train journey home from Aberdeen this afternoon. (You will need to brace yourselves.)

The useful thing
A wonderful website (which is apparently about to be updated, but I'm struggling to see how it could be better - maybe some vouchers for free chocolate or shoes? You know where I am) by UK literary agent Andrew Lownie. It is not enough for Andrew to have a stable of talented authors (including one of my all-time favourites, Daniel Tammet): he has also taken a lot of time to provide a huge bank of info which will help you muchly, whether you are published or not, and agented or not.

Inside the useful thing ...
... are many pages which, if they are not of interest to you, damn well should be. Like Andrew's submission guidelines - although these will inevitably differ from those of some other agents, they provide a paradigm of the sort of rules you will be asked to follow. And hey - he IS looking for new and unpublished wonderful authors. (Trade secret: agents always are.)

And the FAQ page will also tell you a great deal of stuff which I've said before myself, and which other similar blogs and sites will tell you, but nicely set out in one place, instead of hurled at you in dollops in a shouty way, as I tend to do in my crabbit moods. Andrew is absolutely not crabbit. (Well, he may be, but he doesn't seem so on his site.)

When an agent takes the time to explain everything so clearly, the least we can do is read it.

Trouble is, he doesn't tell you the most important thing - how to write the right book brilliantly in the first place. But that's not his job. It's mine ... and one day I will get back to it. (Meanwhile, if you're new to my blog, go and check out the posts with "right book" labels.)

Meanwhile, the inappropriate thing:
Please bear in mind that this was a gorgeous evening in Scotland and I should have expected to see something like this:

Or, this (please excuse the flies on the window):

Or, for those of you who appreciate the wonderful engineering of the Forth Rail Bridge, this:

Clearly, I did see those things, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to photograph them. However, it was difficult to see or focus on those views because of this:

These are the feet of a tourist who I think had been doing a lot of walking. (The clue was the blisters, which you can't see.) The feet are not pleasant, nor are they appropriate things to put on a seat which I might one day have to sit on. They did not enhance my journey at all. They served only the pure self-indulgence of their owner. If you could have seen them as closely as I did, you would have noticed many unpleasant details about them.

Now, I have a reputation for making my many negative travelling experiences tell a story or make a point of vague relevance to this blog. This is no exception. In fact, I have four points to make, to fill in the gap in Andrew Lownie's education of you (the gap being, if you remember, the all-important advice about writing the right book).
  1. Whereas that woman entirely failed to consider what those around her wanted to see, you should, when writing, think of the reader at all times. If the reader would not appreciate something, leave it out. (Or in the case of feet, don't get them out at all.)
  2. Do not be self-indulgent as a writer: that woman was thinking only of her feet and her own comfort. You do not have that luxury. You have a job to do, and that includes attracting and then keeping your reader.
  3. Be appropriate. This does not mean that your book may not contain horrible / gruesome / outrageous things, only that they should only be there when they should be there. That woman was perfectly entitled to remove her shoes, just not there and not then. The art of the writer is to know exactly what word or what detail to reveal and to know how and when.
  4. When you include something inappropriate or ill-considered in your writing, you detract from the surrounding beauty of your language. You wreck the view. Don't do it.
I had actually almost prepared a very topical and important (naturally) post about writing in a recession, but the recession can now wait till tomorrow, or more likely Saturday.

Unfortunately, I cannot tell you the really really annoying thing that happened to me today. Suffice it to say that someone is going to find themselves appearing in one of my books very very soon and coming to one of the most appropriately nasty ends that I can imagine. And I can imagine a few.

Thursday, 7 May 2009


PS An extra thought to add to last post (below, obviously), and one which I believe so strongly that I didn't want to add it to the post but say loudly and in shouty coloured letters, is this:

The writing by a published author is not necessarily "better" than that of a writer who has so far failed to get published. There are many unpublished writers out there (including, doubtless, some of you) who are way way better as writers than some published ones.

Publication is not the badge of brilliance: it is the mark of having written a book which a) fits perfectly within its intended genre (even if that genre is full of, er, what you might call crap) and b) ticks all the boxes of publishability, literarily flawed though some of those boxes may sometimes be and c) an editor wants, loves and believes can sell to the specific market which that editor understands.

That's it. Now go and write beautifully and don't forget to read the post below, otherwise my point above will be pointless, which would be a shame.


I am about to disappear again for a few days, this time to Paris - yeah, I know, being an author with a book to promote sucks - and I am also aware that a) I have been dilatory with your edification recently and b) I am about to enter a phase of being even more dilatory, as I have to hurl myself into more promotional stuff AND there's been (still is) the bloody Nanowrimo (sorry, Elen, I mean incredibly wonderful Nanowrimo which you kindly organised) and some guest blogs I've promised to do and a list of tasks the length of several arms. No mountains though, or only metaphorical ones.

So, until I come back from Paris (did I say that was where I'm going?) I thought I'd leave you with an excellent website full of sound advice and a particular post within it, which I thought was apt to all of us.

The website (and you should bookmark it, as I'm about to) is Casting the Bones, and thanks to "Sarah" for pointing it out. Robert Gregory Browne is the no-nonsense, successful author and I recommend his advice. I also hope you will look at the craft-honing articles BEFORE the "how to get an agent" ones ... I think he would agree.

The article I want you to think about is Are You Ready to be a Published Writer? There were so many lines in it that had me silently cheering but I particularly liked this: "So don’t be so anxious to get published. Be anxious to hone your craft. Expand your understanding of the process. To write stories that will have editors and producers thinking they have no choice but to buy it." This is exactly the drive of my blog.

We've all had that moment of finishing something and being desperate to send it off NOW because it's FAB and we're WRITERS and need to be READ, NOW, or SOONER if possible. But a) when we look at it a few days later, we should be very glad we didn't send it and b) it is almost certainly not as brilliant to a reader as it felt to us as its writer. When we step back, if we've learnt anything, we'll see those faults and know that there are also more faults that we haven't seen.

We must work to find those faults and improve until our writing really is the best it could be. And also good enough to be read and enjoyed by our intended readers, however many they may be.

This leads on from the interesting conversation in the comments on my recent self-publishing post, because there's so much I didn't have time to say about that, and calm though the opposing reasoning was, I simply wasn't persuaded by it and its sieviness. The reason it leads on is that this time to hone, this need to understand about not being ready to be published, this vast chasm that too often exists between how you are writing now and how you could be writing given good direction, is precisely why self-publishing is a very poor answer for the author in that position. (But a good answer for some other authors.)

Self-publishing tempts the unpublished author to bypass that crucial honing and improving and growing stage - unless you really think that your self-published book is only a practice run and you really don't care whether it's the best you can do, or indeed good enough - and if you don't care, well, er, good luck to you because possibly I don't too much care about that sort of writing or writer either ....

The only sort of writer I care about, and the sort of writer this blog is written for, is the sort of writer who will go to the ends of the earth on hands and knees with a cactus strapped to his back to become a better writer, the best writer you can be. Because nothing else is worth doing, as far as I'm concerned. And granted that "better writer" or even "best writer" is not a finite or objective or box-tickable target, it's the only one I am aiming for.

Yay, crabbit is back! And now is going again ...

From Saturday morning till next Wednesday night, I will be unlikely to get online much, not because they don't have the innernet in Paris (did I say that was where I'm going?) but because I am going to be expected to be working for my baguettes; I've seen my programme from the schools and no minute is left untended, believe me. Even the bits that are not work (and to be very fair, there are many, as they have a decent pace of living over there) are occupied by things like "walk in such and such beautiful garden" or "have coffee in such an such café" or "drink champagne in..." No, sorry, got a bit carried away there: there was no mention of champagne.

Oh, by the way - funny question in one of the school-talks I did this morning (from an eleven-year-old boy, remarkably): "Why aren't you wearing blue boots?" My fame precedes me, clearly.

Au revoir.

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: