Monday, 28 September 2009


Two days ago, I talked about whether and when authors need "platforms"  -  see here. And I explained what I meant by that prosaic and commercial word. Don't shy away just because you don't like the word. That would be ostrichesque.

There is no doubt that a very good way to start to build a platform is to blog. Many of you already do. Many of your blogs were mentioned and visited during the Blogoffee Party on Friday.

But, newbies, or those who haven't found their blogging way yet, must remember:
  1. There are other good reasons for writers to blog, not just platform construction
  2. You have to blog properly for it to have effect

Good reasons for writers to blog, in no particular order:
  1. The opportunity to make contacts  -  thereby creating a possible platform and leading to unpredictable things, such as an influential person happening to like what you do and promoting you in some small way which could lead to a big way. (You can't/shouldn't be contrived about this  -  just let it happen).
  2. The opportunity to follow other blogs about writing and by writers and industry professionals  -  thereby increasing knowledge of the whole business, making you more publishable and better prepared
  3. The opportunity to make friends amongst other writers  -  an excellent reason and result 
  4. The opportunity to write  -  when you blog you are writing; and writing, writing anything, is GOOD for a writer. More than good: essential
  5. The opportunity to get instant feedback  -  the book you are writing now, even if it is snapped up, won't be published until perhaps two years from now. Your blog posts are published with the click of a finger and read seconds later.
But, how do you blog properly? (By properly, I mean if you want people to read what you write. If it wasn't, you'd just write a private diary. So, "properly" means at least slightly publicly. Of course, perhaps you do just write your blog for private consumption  -  fine, but that's not what I'm talking about here.)

Here are my rules for successful and happy blogging:
  1. have something to say  -  content is king. What you had for breakfast is not interesting unless it is interesting. We all have breakfast  -  why would I spend time reading about yours? People need a reason to read you and people are busy. There are countless blogs they could be reading. If you haven't got something that will hold an audience for a long post, be brief  -  a lesson I should really learn myself...
  2. be yourself  -  since you need to develop a voice and since you have to blog often,  spontaneously, and over many months, being yourself makes it much easier to sustain. 
  3. but, while being yourself, have a theme, a feel, a "brand". (Sorry to go all markety  - call it a personal style instead, if you like.) It is possible to blog about a range of things, but people need to know what to expect when they come to your blog. For example, you expect me to give publishing advice in a more or less crabbit way; in the process, you expect me sometimes to sound off vaguely amusingly and certainly trenchantly, and to go gooey over chocolate, boots and sparkly wine. That's my "brand"  -  it's also utterly me.
  4. have links to relevant blogs on your blog. Do keep them relevant though, or sort them into topics. Again, it's about people needing to know what to expect and therefore why they should spend time with you. Why should they visit? Will they have fun, learn something, connect with others? Or what?
  5. if stuck for something to say one day, post links to relevant things you find  -  videos, articles or pics. You don't need permission to link to anyone else's blog but quoting substantially from another person's words is breaking the law, so ask. Chances are they'll be delighted. A short quote (and there's no definition of short ...) comes under "fair use " (US) or "fair dealing" (UK) and requires no permission, though you must always credit the writer, provide the source and quote 100% accurately. Some bloggers include a message about what permission you need  -  see mine in the bottom right column.
  6. keep your blog tidy and well-organised so people can find what you want them to find
  7. blog regularly. Two to three times a week is good; once a week is acceptable but is probably the minimum if you want to keep your readers growing.
  8. link to Twitter  -  I'll be talking about Twitter next Monday.
  9. your blog should not just be about you, unless you are completely fascinating. Or even, frankly, if you are. A blog has to be more giving than that. This is so important that I will now elaborate:
If you create a blog purely to promote yourself, you will fail. Or at least you will only succeed in promoting yourself as a selfish bugger full of your own self-importance. Blogging is a shared activity, something which should give as much as it takes. If you blog selfishly and self-importantly, you are like those irritating people who stand around at parties a) looking over my shoulder while talking to me, in case there's someone more interesting / useful they could talk to and b) never asking questions because they only want to hear their own voices. Also, these ugly characters may seem very confident and successful but, trust me, their pride and arrogance will destroy them in the end, or at the very least they will make enemies who will snipe at them behind their backs and not buy their books. I have on many occasions not bought the book of an author who behaves like that. 

This sharing aspect means that you must visit other blogs, comment and get involved. What you can't do is go to someone else's blog and jump into the comments with a plug for your blog. This is very bad blog form. If by chance you've just blogged about the same thing, it would be acceptable to mention this, but give due credit and praise to the blog you are visiting. Be very polite. You wouldn't turn up at someone's house uninvited and start telling them about your success. I hope...

I've read (can't remember where) a paradigm of the rules of promotion in this context, which states that there should be 60% take and 40% give. I'd put it the other way round. If you give more than you take, I think this is better in the long run, makes you more friends, and allows for a slow-burn of success. It feels better too. Maybe that's just me but I'd absolutely hate it if people thought I was doing any of this cynically or selfishly.

There's a thin line between promoting your work and showing off. Of course, not everyone will agree where the line is...

But this brings me to a personal point: those who don't know me well may be thinking, "What, so all this apparent generosity on Nicola Morgan's part, all this providing of info for free, actually is all about creating a platform for herself? She's not really a chocolate-loving, sexy-boot-wearing, sparkly-wine-loving, pseudo-crabbit old bat  -  this is just a persona she has built in order to promote herself as a brand?"

Believe three things: 
  1. I really am that person  -  there is nothing contrived here at all
  2. I started the blog for one reason only  -  I wanted to help writers not approach agents and editors in really stupid ways, because I kept seeing them doing it and it really bugged me. I woke up one morning, early, and started, spontaneously, after a particularly annoying incident where some unpublished writers had shown inexcusable ignorance.
  3. I have continued blogging for one reason only  -  I love doing it, absolutely love it. I hope that shines through. But I love meeting people in all sorts of ways  - parties, dinners, meetings, events, festivals. I am, frankly, a communication and contact junkie. It was only once I got going that I realised that I was inadvertently (but happily, I admit) developing some kind of "platform".
None of this is difficult. I only started eight months ago. I knew nothing, just made it up as I went, learning from others, and making generous contacts. I owe a huge amount to two fellow bloggers in particular, Jane Smith and Lynn Price. I think the way we all respect each other and share ideas, where in a non-blogging environment we could be rivals ready to kill each other with our stilettos, is a beauty of blogging. So many other amongst you have contributed too, and I am grateful to you all. I think we have a great community of people serious about writing, at all different stages of our careers.

Still not convinced of the practical point? In the last two weeks alone I have been contacted by seven very decent bloggers who wanted me to do interviews or guest posts on their blogs. Two of the results are here (no need to see both, as they are the same interview on two different blogs). America Reads and What are Writers Reading? Another is going up in a few days and was amusing to do  -  it was Coffee With a Canine, in which my dog gets to eat biscuits on the sofa and tell squirrel-chasing stories. The others are in progress.

But wouldn't a marketing person want to measure increased sales? Maybe they would, but me? Nah, I'm having way too much fun just writing. Yes, if I could be bothered, I could list positive things that have happened, but I'm not going to. I will just say that I have learnt a lot and that value the conversations we've all had here. And if I hadn't sold a single extra book, I honestly wouldn't mind, though I know very well that I have. You've told me.

So, thank you for allowing me to blog at you so lengthily. (Yes, I know, often too lengthily.) And now, get back to your blogs and prepare for publication...

Meanwhile, I'm off to blog about Twittering, to be posted next Monday. And be aware that I'm away all this week so can't easily reply to your comments, but I will be reading them. I have eyes everywhere.

Saturday, 26 September 2009


The more you talk to people, and listen, the more you know and the more you think. And that  -  knowing and thinking more  -  is the real reason why "social networking" is much, much more about the rather self-centred notion of "building a platform to improve your career." It is about making contacts, and making contacts is about being human. We are social creatures and we rely on networks, whether it's the family, tribe or whole population of like-thinking individuals.

Social networking grows your outlook, widens your knowledge base and thereby opens your mind. And we certainly social-networked at yesterday's blogoffee day, didn't we?!

So, when we wonder and worry about the need to "build a platform as an author", we should think of it in this positive light, rather than running from it in a flurry of negative emotions and then being disparaging when other people do it well.

In the next few days I'm going to focus on the potential of blogs and Twitter  -  in other words the "how" of this question. But now, let's talk about whether authors need a "platform" before they approach publisher or agent.

I was reminded of this topic the other day when, as so often, I was reading a sensible blog post by that whirlwind of good advice, Jane Smith. I joined in the comments and said something about a platform not being essential in order to sell a book to a publisher or agent. [Jane agreed.] This was in response to someone implying that without the author having some kind of status or existing readership a pub/agent wouldn't look twice. In reply to my comment pointing out that many authors, including myself, had no contacts and no platform on first publication, wonderful US editor Lynn Price from the Behlerblog countered with this, [and I'm assuming she won't mind my quoting it  -  lovely Lynn? I'll buy you a margharita]:

"Here in the US, platform is very important in the course of selling books to the bookstores. They always ask our sales folks, "what is the author doing to promote?" When considering offering an author a contract, I always look at their platform. If they have a direct tie to their subject matter, this makes it easier to get booksellers excited about how the author will show their pretty face.

If they don't, then I still must feel comfortable that they have good ideas on how best to promote their book. This means understanding their readership and knowing how to find them. [my bold]

When I fall in love with a book, my brain is already kicked into high gear as to how I plan on promoting their book. I need to be sure the author is on board with me and is ready, willing, and able, AND has a tie-in with their book.

We have to cover a wide amount of real estate in the US, and the bigger splash an author can make with author events, the easier it is to excite a bookseller. They want to know if the book will sit on the shelf gathering dust or will fly out the door."

And this got me thinking further. [Remember I started this post by saying that social networking, all the time we put into blogging and reading other's blogs and making contacts, is useful and thought-provoking and beneficial, and far from being a waste of time?] And I came up with these conclusions. They are remarkably simple and succinct for me, and I offer them to you to think about yourselves. As I said, I will go into some actual ways to put the ideas into effect very soon.

But first, what do I mean by "platform". I mean anything which gives you a) either an existing readership or network of relevant contacts from which potential book-buyers could come b) and/or some visibility or recognised expertise in your subject area. In other words, the opposite of being someone who is only known to friends, family, neighbours and work colleagues. In the old days, either you were only known to those groups or you were famous. Nowadays, creating a platform gives you a position in the middle of that.

So, my thoughts on whether you need a platform before being accepted by a publisher or agent:
  1. There are some differences between the US and UK approach, but it is likely that in the UK and elsewhere we will tend towards the US approach sooner or later. Be prepared.
  2. Certainly, an author will have to engage in a range of promotional activities when the book comes out. This is unavoidable and needs to be thought about well in advance. 
  3. There are countless ways in which one might promote a book and an author  -  but it would be a) impossible and b) undesirable to engage in all these possibilities. Therefore, we should not panic but should think carefully about what works best for this author [us] and this book. After all, if you throw everything into promoting yourself, you are not writing, you are merely reacting and panicking.
  4. Although it will certainly be essential to start to create a platform at some sensible point, that point does not necessarily have to be before you approach an agent or publisher. Not having a platform now does not mean the publisher or agent won't take on your work.
  5. However, having a platform now is going to help. How could it not? So, do note the bit that I bolded in Lynn's comment.
  6. At the same time, I do think that in your first approach to agent/publisher, your description of whatever platform you have must be clear, realistic and calm. I saw a covering letter once in which the author's only claim to a platform was his one-off appearance as an audience member who happened to ask a question on the TV programme, Kilroy. By the same token, spewing ornate self-aggrandising lists of blogger-networks and half-baked promotional videos and the times when you ran down the street naked in order to promote your self-published book is really not going to help. Be professional. Don't claim to be able to do the marketing department's job  -  be there to work with them rationally.
  7. Also, if you are writing non-fiction, I'd venture to say that a platform is essential before your book is likely to be taken on. With a few exceptions, it is hard to see how an author could be sufficiently expert or passionate about a subject without having gone out there and talked and written about it and garnered followers and future readers.
  8. If you do not have any platform at all just now, I wonder what is stopping you? Is it fear, paralysis or just not knowing where to start. Don't panic, don't rush into things that are not "you", don't worry. Take your time to think what would be your best way to show a professional approach to how you would expect to help market your book. 

Think about it: by reading this blog and connecting with its readers and the blogs I link to, you're already starting. Hooray for your existing platform! Your train is ready to depart.

I'll be back early this coming week** with a post or two about using blogs and Twitter as simple and free ways to start and extend your platform. Before you know it, you'll be a veritable Grand Central Station.

** Edited to add: blogging one coming Monday 28th Sept; Twitter one Mon 5th Oct. Other musings in between. I'm actually going to be a away but I have scheduled posts for you. I couldn't let you down. There's also an emotional outpouring on 7th oct, unless I think better of it. If I'm hit by a bus in the meantime, it will have to go out as my epitaph.

Friday, 25 September 2009


Welcome to my humble blogabode for coffee, chocolate, cake, shoes, and anything else that will help your day flow. This is now an official part of the Biggest Coffee Morning in the World, organised by and for Macmillan Cancer Support. you may well find the normal seriousness of this blog has come adrift. I've had a hard day. ["Today" being yesterday, technically].

By the way, apparently it was National Punctuation Day "today". I'd like to register my contribution to a subsidiary, [National Bracket Day]. [I find I'm using them more and more]. 

In honour of Blogoffing, I have just baked my own patent and trademarked [literally] "Brain Cake TM." If you would like the recipe, please go here. [Oh bugger  -  I just looked at that recipe again and realised that I forgot the linseeds. I've made it hundreds of time but I was making curry at the same time so things were not simple. Oh well, if you make it, don't forget the linseeds. They're the bit that especially make your brain work. In fact, if I'd had some first, I wouldn't have forgotten them ...] It is the only cake in the world which no one can make you feel guilty for eating. Research shows [my research] that eating two pieces makes your brain work twice as well as eating one piece. I admit that this rule cannot be continued indefinitely and that there will theoretically come a point at which one more piece will make your brain work less well than one fewer piece.

In the pic, you can also see Harvey Nicks coffee, but don't be decieved  -  it's just a tin; and you can see something in the background for later, much later.

Anyway, we haven't got all day.

What are we doing today?
Not doing the usual thing, which is listening to me pretending to be crabbit while revealing the mysteries of how to persuade publishers that your book is really what they have been looking for all their lives.

No, today we are having a blogoffee day. And this is what happens. And I warn you, it is not well organised or throught through. I'm having a difficult week and juggling too many things and not enough linseeds.

Choose one or more of these activities

Writers and book-loving bloggers  -  tell us about your blog or website. Give us a short (because brevity is a very important skill in a writer, and one that I have spectacularly not mastered) description of / plug for the blog/website, and its address. Ideally, give the address as a live link but if that is beyond you, no problem.

Anyone  -  and/or tell us about someone else's blog, ideally not one that someone else has just mentioned. Educate us, enlighten us. We'd like to know about booky or writery blogs, please.

Readers  -  what do you look for in a book? We're writers and we write for you, so tell us what you love and what you hate. As long as you don't hate anything I've done.

Everyone  -  THEN, because this is about sharing, read everyone's comments and promise to visit at least three of the other links that you've never visited before, or not recently, and leave comments there.If you're here early in the day you won't find so much choice, so COME BACK.

Twitterers  -  twitter away all day. Tell the world about interesting bloggers you met today. Retweet and tweeteme and all that stuff.

And finally  -  join a collaborative story.

Collaborative story RULES:
  • It's entirely optional, of course.
  • The starting sentence is below. Read the comments to see what others have added and then add one sentence.
  • When I say ONE, I'm not actually being literal. I don't want a story with loads of really long sentences. So, if you do a lovely brief sentence, you can have TWO. If you do really really short sentences, you can have THREE. The integrity and flow of the story is paramount. You're an artist, not a show-off. Yes?
  • You can take the story in any direction you like EXCEPT explicitly erotic (sorry!) or completely boringly stupid. Absurd, in the literary sense, is fine. But it must flow from the previous sentence and not illogically contradict what has gone before. I don't mind if it becomes absurd, gothic, amusing, tragic. I just want to see good writing and I want to be interested, gripped or entertained. What it does to the rest of you, I don't really care. This is my party and I can be entertained if I want to.
  • Story contributions should start with the word STORY in caps, just so we don't think you're recommending some bizarre blog
  • NB NB NB Story contributions should be in a separate comment from your other contributions
  • Because there's a danger of cross-posting (where two people follow the same sentence simultaneously) it's going to be chaos  -  who cares? We can deal with chaos.
  • copyright issues  -  I got quite tangled in the abstract possibilitieis of this so I have decided that this is the situation: we each have copyright on our own contributions, of course; however, if anyone would like to quote any part of the story other than his/her own (you know, because the story is going to be so incredibly amazing ...), anyone may, though not for financial reward, on condition that the extract is always credited as "a collaborative exercise on where individual authors can be found". If you can actually credit a person's name for your extract, please do. I am not responsible for any plagiarism or theft of ideas  -  this is a game and by entering you indicate that you are relaxed. You can't sue me and anyway, I don't have any money. Any doubts, please ask.
  • please do not defame or offend any living person; obviously do not offend the taste of decent people  -  I am a decent person and prefer the f-word and similar not to be used on my clean and tidy blog; each writer takes responsibility for the legality etc of his/her own words.
  • basically [do you sense my panic?] I do not take any responsibility at all for what comes out of this. You're all grown-ups. More or less.
I'm regretting this already but your starting sentence is:
"Taking a deep breath and giving the wood-burning stove a quick anticipatory prod, Marilynne Wainwright, literary agent par excellence, opened the refreshingly clean and professional-looking package and pulled out the double-spaced, single-sided, A4 sheets within, sighing with relief and surprise as nothing untoward fell out: no extras, no photos, no sticky toffee gifts."

Where does Macmillan Cancer Support come into it? Well, if you've had fun, learnt anything or feel for any other reason inspired to recognise the wonderful work that Macmillan do, then do consider making a donation directly to them by clicking here. It's entirely up to you.

Now, I'm off to start the comments going. [Which is impossible until I've posted this, so if you are visiting in the first few monutes, you'll find no comments and you can picture me frantically trying to come up with something while drinking first coffee of many]. Don't let me be alone  -  that would be really embarrassing.

Thursday, 24 September 2009


To encourage you to focus on your goal of publication [you were wavering, I know you were], I thought we'd have a little look at that thorny issue: controlling journalists. Or at least from the very one-sided POV which is the one I am choosing to take today.

Journalists are lovely, of course, or, even if they're not, they're only doing a job. And that, dear readers, is the crux: they are doing a job, and their task is NOT "How will I publicise this gullible author's book?" Their task is: "How will I get my story? Specifically, how will I get the author to provide one sentence to support the story I need and have already written in my head?"

This task is simple for the journalist, for two reasons:
  1. The author is so hopelessly delighted to be interviewed that he/she will eventually say anything
  2. The journalist will talk to the author for an hour or more, during which time the author will probably have spoken 8,000 words, of which the journalist only needs 20.
I was reminded of this today when a newly-published novelist and reader of this blog  -  hooray!  -  emailed me and said she'd been asked for an interview by a Sunday paper which wanted to photograph her at home, with family members if possible; and that she knew that some of the topics behind the book could touch tricky ground, because of connections with mental health issues; but that the reporter seemed genuinely kind. What advice did I have? Should she do it?

This was what I said, plus a bit more:

  1. Do it  -  almost never say no to an interview unless you're so successful you don't care
  2. Be aware that the reporter, however kind she seems and is, knows the story she wants to write and she will go all out to get you to say the thing that supports her story.
  3. Ask her to tell you in advance what line she's interested in and what areas she wants to cover
  4. If there are things you don't want her to ask about, SAY so very very clearly, or say it's "off the record"  -  point out that printing such a thing would cause distress to family members, particularly younger ones. I have always refused to talk about my kids other than to state their age and gender.
  5. She will leave out 98% of what you say and just include the 2% she wants. Therefore, simply do not say anything you don't want said.
  6. If you accidentally say something you wish you hadn't, explain that it would be misleading and untrue to record your erroneous comment. "Off the record" ought to be honoured and nearly always is.
  7. Do not fill a silence  -  that's for her to do. Less is less and less is best. Say too much and it will be paraphrased, often weirdly.
  8. If your family don't want to be in the pics or talked about, make that clear
  9. Talk about your book a lot, much more than the background stuff that she wants
  10. Talk about your book again
  11. Prepare in advance a very succinct and memorable way of answering these two heart-sinking questions a) so, what's it about then, this book? b) why did you write it? [When I say memorable, I mean memorable in a printable way ...]
  12. Smile and be friendly; offer cake; be human and lovely. She'll still shaft** you if she wants to but she'll feel worse about it. But don't gush and flutter  -  be professional. Appear to have done this loads of times before. 
  13. Think about how you dress  -  you can dress any way you want, but think about it. How do you want the journo to remember you? The fab shoes? The clean open-necked shirt? The greasy hair and non-designer stubble? Soup on cleavage?
  14. Realise that however you are quoted in the article, you will probably cringe when you read it afterwards anyway
  15. And remember that even if you end up being uncomfortable about how the article comes out, no one else will remember the negative bits  -  they'll just remember you and your book
Because remember: you just got free publicity for the book you are so proud of. Hooray for lovely journalists!

**Edited to add a PS re "shafted"  -  quite right Flixton Mum, that was a cruel word for me to use! But I only said "if she wants to", and of course there are hardly any journalists who would twist your words maliciously, unless you had behaved very unpleasantly in the interview ...

And that pretty much sums up dealing with newspaper interviews. Are you ready for the Bloggoffee Day tomorrow? Get baking.

Monday, 21 September 2009


Further to my last post about permission not to write and motivation and stuff, my agent has lost her normal excellent judgement and decided that my reluctant first two chapters of my very difficult WIP are "bloody good writing". This is very bad news as I had hoped to doss around for the next few months. I'd suspect she'd been drinking if it wasn't for the fact that it was rather early in the morning and that she's never shown any other signs of a drink problem. Maybe that's the problem  -  not enough.

Also, I'm going to even busier because Mrs Smith and I have plans for world domination. Mind you, her most recent suggestion indicates that she's been drinking, too. Does this happen to everyone I have dealings with? It's really rather sad. There's me remaining stoically sober and everyone else is hitting the bottle.

But I really wanted to say thank you to all you wonderful blog readers because, as one commenter [Rebecca] on the last post said, "I love that the commenters provide a fascinating discussion even after the post is done." You all help to make this blog worth writing, and I hope worth reading. See, I'm going all sentimental in the extremity of my stress. That and having had an accident yesterday while out walking and coming into painfully close contact with the branch of a tree which really shouldn't have been there. I now have two large cuts on my forehead and two on my scalp, which took a bit of explaining and ouching when I had my hair done today.

But, wonderful as you blog-readers are and contributory as you may be to the value of this blog, I warn you, if I ever make any money from it you're having none of it. Not a sou.

Meanwhile, I would like to give you advance warning that in recognition of your collective wondrousness and that there seem to be no deluded idiots amongst you now that the troll has gone back in its cave, I am going to invite you to a virtual coffee morning this coming Friday  -  25th Sept. It's unofficially part of the Macmillan Biggest Coffee Morning in the World and is in aid of Macmillan Cancer Nurses.

I'll tell you about it tomorrow [when I've worked it out]  -  and any of you with blogs are hugely welcome to join in and do the same or similar.

Meanwhile, meanwhile, I hope my agent is having a large glass of wine this evening. She doesn't deserve it but I prescribe it for her. Gah, agents!

Sunday, 20 September 2009


Look, I know Emily Gale and I are both YA authors but does that mean she gets to read my mind?? She's just blogged in partial response to my blog post [below] about writing habits, which was in response to her blog post about writing locations, and her new post is about writing and not writing, and permission not to write, which is what I was going to blog about next.

The question of whether to write at all (which is not exactly what Emily is talking about) is something close to my heart at the moment as I've been thinking about why I write. One thing's for certain: it's often so damned painful that you'd think we'd only do it if there was a huge reward.

In a recession which is hitting all forms of written word, and in which it's harder and harder to make a living, the question of why we write becomes more crucial and more practical. Because it's sure as hell the case that the reward is most unlikely to be financial. It never was a safe route to financial stability but I hardly know an author who's already small writing income hasn't fallen. Mine has and it's really getting to me and leading to some soul-searching.

Why do we write?
A mixture of things, of course, and different motives for different people. Different at different times of our careers, too. Which brings me to myself. I tell you about myself not because I think I'm interesting but because I'm the only person I'm fully qualified to talk about. Maybe some of these things will resonate with you. If you're at a different career stage from me, maybe you can look ahead [or back] and see if you're on the same road.

When I was struggling for years and years to get published, writing for money was no part of my motivation. Not that I was going to rip a cheque up, you understand, but I'd have done it for nothing. In fact, when I did get my first [unagented] contract I wept for joy while they walked all over me in pointy shoes.

What did I want from my writing then? Why did I wreck my mental state just to pursue the dream?

It couldn't have been simply that I loved writing, needed it to feed my soul, though both those were true. I was already writing, a lot, and easily - if it was just about writing, publication wouldn't have mattered so much.

Or was it simply seeing my name in print? Not exactly, because I could have self-published or gone down the vanity route.

It was two** things. First, I wanted to be able to say those words, "I am an author." Second, since I thought I was a good enough writer to be published, I needed to be publicly affirmed as that. I suppose, on my dreamy days, I was also attracted to the idea of a little bit of "fame", [really just a little bit - so I could still be grumpy and poorly dressed in Sainsbury's]. You could also say that since I'd been a very shy child who hated performing, but that I'd loved it when someone else read my words and was moved by them, then being published was my way of performing.

(** or three, as I just realised this morning, and added at the end of the post.)

But now? I've got all that - I got published; I wouldn't call myself famous, but in my own genre I'm sufficiently known, I think; people recognise me for my shoes, which was beyond my wildest dreams; I even love performing in public now and am established enough that I get as many invitations as I want; and I am proud enough of what you might call my "body of work" - apologies for pomposity but I'm being honest here. I have probably done better than I had ever thought I could, though I don't think I thought much beyond the first dreamed-of contract.

I could give up now, couldn't I? Recently, I've considered it. Because, you know what? Writing, writing novels, is damned hard. Sometimes I think it's too hard. "But it's what you do. You can't afford to give up now, can you?"

Can't afford to give up? God, if I only earned from my fiction writing, I couldn't afford to continue! The money for my kind of novel-writing is seriously rubbish. I'd tell you how rubbish, except that I'm ashamed. Yep, I earn a reasonable amount altogether, but that's from speaking, not writing, or it's from writing other things, not fiction.

I moaned about this to my long-suffering agent the other day. "But money isn't the only reward, is it?" she said. "If you imagine yourself not writing, does that conjure up a picture of a creatively satisfying life?"

No, but not being valued for what I write doesn't conjure up that picture either. How much does "creatively satisfying" have to cost in time, effort and money [because I could be earning sensible money doing something else]. And, like it or not, when someone pays you for something, they attach a value to it. I know that by saying that I risk undermining the work that wonderful people do for charity - and I do some myself actually - but this is about my living, my career, my profession. It feels like a pathetic one if I can't earn from it.

So, now, I guess you'd say I am motivated by money. I may not have cared before but now I do. Maybe it's one of the differences between being unpublished and published. We think we write for the glory of writing, the pleasure of being heard, but when we've got that we want something else.

Greedy bastards who spend our lives looking at the grass on the other side, aren't we, we humans?

But you know something? We're back to the excuses for not writing, which was the point of my last post and which I was still struggling with when I started writing this post.

You see, I've worked out what's wrong with me at the moment.

My agent was right, as bloody usual: it's not about the money. The problem is that writing novels is damned difficult, no easier than it was when I started, possibly even harder, and I'm looking for an excuse not to do it. I want, in Emily's words, permission not to write novels. Because there are a load of other things I can write, like this blog, and non-fiction, and articles, and short stories. And I will write them, but if I run away from the difficult one then I'm letting myself down. How "creatively satisfying" would that be?

I do have one more let-out though, one more thing that could legitimately stop me writing the bloody novel. See, yesterday I steeled myself to send my agent the first two chapters of the new WIP. And I'm seriously more than half hoping that she'll say they're rubbish and that I've come up with an unsellable idea. That would be a truly fabulous reason not to write it, wouldn't it? Absolute permission not to write. Then instead of spending all my days struggling to write a novel and earning sod all I could spend all my days blogging for you lot and earning sod all.

Unfortunately, she's already said she loves the title, which was not meant to happen ...

Aghhhh! Nooooo! I'd forgotten the real reason I keep writing. How could I have forgotten? The real reason I write is because every time I get a new contract I get a new pair of boots.

Elizabeth? Are you still there? It's OK, really - you're allowed to say the first two chapters are completely brilliant and compelling and definitely worth continuing. As long as the advance is enough to cover a decent pair of boots, that's fine. I'll write, I'll wear my fingers to the bone, I'll burn the candle at both ends [how does that work?], I'll do anything, anything, anything for boots.

Edited to include:
But, no, I've just remembered something. I've woken up this morning and remembered the real reason why I loved writing fiction in the first place and why I would hate to stop, even though sometimes, like now, it feels horribly difficult: power. The power to move people, the power to create worlds in other people's heads. How can I give that up? Compared to the power of creating worlds, changing minds and stirring hearts, boots, chocolate and sparkly wine are trivial.

Good God, did I just say that???

Friday, 18 September 2009


Something for the weekend, as they say. A little thing to get you thinking, inspired by blogger, Twitterer and YA author, Emily Gale - read her post here first.

It got me thinking about something I've recently learnt: the things we believe are habits are just that - habits. And habits can (and very often should) be broken.

We say things about ourselves which sound like truths, but they may not be. Here are some things I've said about myself and which turned out not to be true when tested:
  • I can't write fiction when other people are in the house. [Yes, I can if I negotiate untouchable space. I learnt this when my husband was home for six long months of "gardening" leave. We agreed that if I put a scarf on the door handle, he would never come in. That was a great way to get some secret chocolate eating done. But I did write. I had to.]
  • I always write on a computer. [Not if I don't have access to one. I learnt this when I travelled to the Isle of Wight to stay in Alfred Noyes' house as the guest of his grandson and at the suggestion of his daughter; my laptop spookily stopped working on the train down there and didn't start working again until I was nearly home. Spooo-ky. Now I quite often write on paper, with a pen. It feels very wonderful. It doesn't look very wonderful but I can learn to deal with that too.]
  • I can't write on trains or in hotel rooms. [I tried it and I could. Simple.]
  • I couldn't write fantasy. [I just did.]
  • I don't like short stories. [Until I read Tania Hershman's The White Road, published by Salt. For some reason, I can't do Amazon links any more but you can find her somehow.]
We do two things wrong, I think. [Well, I do many things wrong, but in this context just two.]

  1. We make excuses for ourselves for why we don't write more, more often, more easily. "I can't write on trains" is so much more valid than "I find writing really difficult and sometimes even boring and sometimes even quite impossible."
  2. We create perfect imagined situations for writing - little routines, mascots, mantras [such as tidy desks, or cups of coffee, special pens, silence, chocolate] and then spend far too long getting everything just right instead of getting on with the task in hand.
Crikey, I've even said that I can't write until I've hoovered behind the fridge. Leaving aside extreme work avoidance such as fridge-hoovering [and I've written about essential Work Avoidance Strategies here - no, silly woman, NOT essential, entirely optional] there are plenty of things we do before we write. I'll check all my email addresses, put the laundry on, tidy my desk, stuff that takes so long that I need another cup of coffee just to recover.

And so I have a challenge for you. Next time you have a time when you're meant to be writing, as in proper writing, the difficult stuff, the real important meaningful stuff, do this:

EITHER [see, I'm so kind that I'm giving you a choice]:

1. Write down all the things you normally do before you'll write; include the conditions you think are ideal, whether it's the silence, the tidiness, the coffee or whatever.
2. Refuse to allow yourself any of them. Create for yourself the opposite, if possible - the noise, the untidiness, the tea instead of coffee [yuck]. And then write - and don't stop until you've written 1000 words. Doesn't matter what the words are like, just write them.
3. Eat chocolate

1. Go and write somewhere you've never written before. Anywhere: a café, another room, the park, a station, the kitchen, lying on your stomach on the floor, in the bath. Write 1000 words.
2. Eat chocolate.

That [chocolate-eating] is the only habit you should never break. After all, you couldn't write without chocolate, could you?

This is a picture of me actually in Alfred N's house, reading The Highwayman. What you can't see is that in the background I am also listening to his voice read the poem on an ancient cassette lent to me by his grandson.

PS - if you're interested in my personally epiphanal experience of that trip, here you are. Something else for the weekend.

Thursday, 17 September 2009


""Begin at the beginning," the King said, very gravely, "and go on till you come to the end: then stop."" Lewis Carroll makes it sound so simple.

Thing is, where is the beginning? Where does any real story start? And in fiction, where should you choose to start it?

Although it was a blog-reader or two who asked me to talk about beginnings, it's also a sore point for me because I've been struggling with a beginning of a new novel. Sometimes the beginning is the easiest bit - in fact, we'd probably agree that usually the beginning is the easiest bit. It's certainly the most important bit, because if it's not good enough no one will get to read the middle or end.

I think there are three aspects of beginnings that we need to look at. [God I sound serious / pompous today.]
  1. When to start
  2. How to start
  3. Things to avoid
1. When in the story should I start?

Simple: start at the point of the story which will hook the readers and draw them in quickly.

This could be with a flashback or a much earlier event which triggered the main narrative. Examples are Kate Atkinson's brilliant latest novel, When Will There Be Good News? and [if you don't mind my mentioning my own books but they are the ones I seem to know most about] Fleshmarket, by me. Both start with a shocking event which happened years before the main story. Both also enable a childhood event to be related, with a child's POV, but then for the main narrative to be from a more interesting and sustainable viewpoint than a child's.)

Or it could be a flashforward, but only if relevant. You can't contrive a flashforward: it must be intrinsic. And, you have to be careful because you risk giving the game away. I used this device in The Passionflower Massacre and it is also how The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein, my favourite book in the world, starts.

Or it may not be an earlier event, but simply "in medias res". Jump right in with a compelling episode; get right to the point. This is the method with fewer drawbacks. Perhaps the most common way to start and one which readers find most comfortable?

Or you might decide to begin with backstory /scene-setting straightaway. Clearly this has got to be very carefully done and the back story has to be compelling enough. Never start this way just because you feel the need to explain things - only start this way because you think that's what's going to draw the reader in most compellingly.

2. How should you start? Method / style /mood etc

The options are:
  1. shock - I like this option, though you can't do it all the time. I did it with Fleshmarket and its shocking opening became notorious. (Even Ian Rankin was shocked ...). I think Kate Atkinson's opening is more shocking. But I'm planning to surpass both of us with my new WIP.
  2. mystery / intrigue - hmm, wonders the reader, that sounds really spooky / fascinating / intriguing. I must read on to see what's actually happening. This was my choice with Mondays are Red, where the opening shows a boy waking from a coma. (In medias res). I did it in The Passionflower Massacre, too, with several things to wonder about: "Who is the old woman? Will the weird religious guy get out of prison? Why is she visiting him? Is he going to manipulate her? Why is she not afraid of him?"
  3. scene-setting / portrayal of main character (MC) doing something relevant but not shocking - just don't overdo the static scene-setting: we do need to have a reason to read on. Remember: you are interested in your MC, but we are not until you give us very good reason. Is your MC interesting enough or do we need serious action as well?

Things to avoid
  • playing with the reader too much. The reader doesn't trust you yet and readers hate to be messed around with. Give them enough to keep them happy yet hungry.
  • too much back-story. The reader may well need some in order to understand, but it must never feel false, never feel as though the author is prepping the reader full of info, never expect the reader to remember too much too fast. Drip-feed the back story. Give the minimum.
  • the rather clichéd opening of shocking Chapter 1 followed by huge dollop of gentle backstory /history lesson in Ch 2, followed by the story getting going again. You've lost half of us by then.
Simple, really.

If it's all as simple as that, why did I have trouble with my new WIP? Actually, I'd written the shocking first chapter quite easily, but this is only part of the beginning, because it doesn't introduce my MC. Chapter 1 is very short, a brutal act that happens to a secondary character. But Chapter 2 needed to introduce my MC. And that's the proper start of the story. It's certainly the start of the main story, the MC's story. And I had a strong feeling that since Ch 1 was so brutal I wanted to lighten things so that the reader wouldn't think he was going to be battered by awfulness throughout the book. But I still needed it to be dramatic and compelling, because you have to be thrown straight into the MC's life, without too much back-story. Or even without any.

I knew a lot about the MC's back-story, though I had no plans to tell the readers yet. Certainly not in Chapter 2 as that would have been a real let-down after Ch 1. What I also knew was that there was something missing, something that would motivate him to do something quite out of character. Why would he help the girl horribly attacked in Ch 1? I needed him to. But he wouldn't.

Unless something happened. And then I got it. Yesterday. It was a eureka moment and the dog got a bit of a fright. Suddenly I knew what happened. Something that would shock the character and throw him out of his helplessness and inevitable life of crime, something that would be morally ambivalent (because I don't do twee and cute and this is gritty YA writing I'm doing). I'm afraid it wasn't gentle at all - it was shocking again. But it wasn't bleak. And now, the readers will root for him, this street-kid who you'd not want to meet on a dark night, or even a sunny day.

So, now, the story is rolling - the beginning was the sticking point and from getting the right beginning everything else will follow.

There are two lessons here:
  1. work on it, walk on it and it will sort itself out - stories have a way of doing that if you give them space
  2. once you get the right beginning, everything flows from that - for both reader and writer

An extra tip, if you still can't get your beginning:

Just write A Beginning, any beginning. Start anywhere. Because guess what? You can always change it. There's a delete button on your computer and pages can be ripped from notebooks. Just get started and the true start will sort itself out later. In some ways, that's what I did - because as well as thinking and walking to try to sort the problem out, I also started writing a character description and back-story (not to go in the book, but for me to get to know this MC properly) and it was while writing that that I realised a) what was missing and b) how to fill the gap. I suddenly realised that I'd inadvertently started writing the episode itself - and I rather quickly had to shut that document and start a new page entitled, gloriously, CHAPTER TWO.

Hooray for Chapter Twos! Because from them follow Chapter Threes. And then when you get to the end, you stop, as the King said. But where to stop? Endings, you mean? That's for another post, and about time too, I hear you say - one of you asked me ages ago to do endings. But I had to do beginnings first. Of course.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009


Let me start by offering huge congratulations to successful author and reader of this blog, Daniel Blythe? Why? Well, partly because he sent me the link that is going to inspire this post. And partly because I see that his newest book, Autonomy, is .... sound the trumpets .... No 1 in Tesco! Hooray in spades! (NB - that's a link to the live chart and the trouble with being No 1 is that ultimately there's only one way to go, but he WAS No 1 in Tesco and that's more than I can say.)

Now, this well-deserved success of Daniel's got me thinking about the link that he'd sent me a while back, suggesting I blog about it. And, though he didn't say so, I'm guessing he imagined I'd blog about it in a crabbit way, throwing my hands up in horror and in support of the irritated Guardian reviewer who wrote the article. (Sorry, can't see the name of the writer.)

Go and read it if you haven't already, and then come back.

Are we talking about the appalling prospect of books being sold / reviewed on the basis of how good-looking their authors are? Which would be, clearly, an appalling prospect. If it was the prospect. As the author of the piece points out, none of the books offered on the basis of author videos was reviewed, for one reason: they weren't good enough.

Or are we talking about marketing people using any angle to get books noticed even if the angle is tacky? Which is, er, not very surprising. Nor new. I'm pretty sure that Byron overcame some of his badness, madness, and dangerousness with more than a hint of Byronic gorgeousness. Frankly, anything that can get an author noticed will be used.

Thing is, I think the author of the piece was over-reacting a bit. First, the authors are described by their publishers in terms such as "endearing, intelligent and attractive" and "very personable". For all we know, the "very personable" one was personable solely because of a charming smile, with no other classically beautiful features. Now, I don't have a charming smile: I have a twisted one and an asymmetrical face because I had my jaw joint removed, but I don't have a problem with those who do have charming smiles having attention drawn to them, because I'd hope instead to score in the "endearing and intelligent" stakes, or possibly the "serious and piercing" or even "blonde" (it costs me to maintain, but blonde I can do reasonably well).

With all respect to my fellow members of the Society of Authors, who are all published authors, a rather large number of us do not fall into the obviously gorgeous category. Yet we manage to be published.

Also, as one of the commenters on the piece says (and the comments are worth reading), no one was saying the authors were "young and beautiful". Even the word "attractive" can mean many different things. And very definitely depending on the beholder. An "attractive" author can mean all manner of interesting and various things. As we all know, attractive does not have to mean picture-postcard perfect. Plastic surgery is absolutely not required or desired.

Seems to me we all do whatever it takes to create an "appealing" public persona, especially in this visual age and born as we are into a visually-biased species, and if "dark and sexy" fairly describes you, then what do I care if your publisher says that? Our websites give a whole load of info that you'd think no one would really want to know and which on the face of it has no bearing on our books - how interested are you in the fact that I love anchovies, for example? Well, my website gives you that info. You can ignore it if you want. You'd be surprised how many people find it fascinating - so fascinating that when I removed it and other silly stuff, a school teacher complained that there was no "personal" info for her pupils to use for a project.

When I read someone's work, I confess I am interested in who they are - how old, male or female, something about their background, why they write. Doesn't make me listen more or less, but I'm interested. I don't want them to be perfect, just human. They are talking to me, after all, and I like to know who is talking to me. I read the little biogy bits at the front of books; I am hungry for author info.

Which brings me to our hero, Daniel. (Apologies, D - I didn't warn you about this! You can get me back on Facebook, if you like. Besides, it's a small price to pay to see your latest book plugged, wouldn't you say?)

See, as all good authors do, and especially authors for young people, Daniel has a website. From which we are to learn the things he wishes us to learn about him. He will have selected the info in order to portray a certain picture - no doubt a true one, but it won't be a complete one. He does this not, I presume, because we might fall in love with him (I should warn you that DB has a wife and kids and he is presumably precious to them, so hands off, please, blog-readers) but because he'd like us to read his books and he thinks (rightly, imho) that the more we know about him, within reason, the more we might do so.

On his website we learn all sorts of things, many of which have nothing to do with whether the words in his books are any good. There's his wife and two kids, the fact he lives near Sheffield - let's hope he has real electricity, unlike poor Jane Smith. He is younger than me - the bastard. (Does this make me not want to read his books? Nah, I'm bigger than that.) He likes tea. And he lives in a place which some people think was the birthplace of Robin Hood. Yeah, right. He got an annoying number of O-levels and A-levels, speaks a ridiculous number of languages and went to the wrong university. Am I beginning to hate him? Well .... No, of course not. I am beginning to know him, or at least that part of him he wishes me to know, which is fair enough. And probably far enough.

As to whether he's good looking or not - well, a) that's for his wife to say b) we don't care and c) I would hate to embarrass him further. He looks personable, relaxed, on holiday. He's wearing shades so either a) he's got something wrong with his eyes b) he's very cool c) it was a sunny day or d) any combination of the above.

Thing is, what we know is that Daniel has a personality and, being human, we respond to that. Of course, we could be being deceived; everything on his website could be a lie. In which case, way to go, Daniel!

So, I disagree with the Guardian blogger. I respect the viewpoint but I disagree. I do want to know something about the authors whose books I read. Including what they look like, not to judge their attractiveness but to begin to connect.

Which reminds me. Must go and buy Autonomy. But not from Tesco, if you don't mind - I'd like to see it No 1 in my local independent. Vanessa - do you have it? If not, why not? He's good-looking, for crying out loud.

Saturday, 12 September 2009


Thing about writers is we're passionate about words. (If you're not, bugger off, please).

Trouble with being passionate about words is we sometimes don't know when to rein in our passion. I admit that I'm guilty of this quite often. There are people in my life who do their best to stop me, and very grateful I am to them.

They are, in no particular order:
  • my husband - "Shut up: you're banging on."
  • my editor - "OTT" / "suggest omit?"
  • my internal editor - "do you really need both those descriptions you're so horribly proud of? Would you consider killing one of the babies? No? Well, I'll do it for you and it won't be pretty."
Personally, I blame it on primary school teachers. (With all respect to them for the otherwise wonderful job they do and all the nasty things they mop up.) See, when kids start to write stories, they're told to use adjectives, and adverbs, and detail, and the five senses; and then they get onto similes and metaphors and other devices. Whenever children use these techniques, they get praised. So they use more. And more. Some children don't and they don't get praise, so they fade into the background and become the ones who don't consider themselves writers. Meanwhile Arabella and George have their stories read out in class to demonstrate the richness of their language and the vividness of their imaginations. And so Arabella and George gorge on more and more adjectives and clever-clever literary devices and get carried away into some kind of ecstasy as they sit in their teenage rooms and pour their hearts out into their diaries by moonlight.

Other kids are asleep, but Arabella and George are floating on moonbeams and diving into liquid worlds and sherbet dreams and the parts of their brains that are good with words become passionate about words and lo and behold, two hopeful writers are emerging.

Thing is, no one tells them to stop. No one tells them that just because an adjective is beautiful, five adjectives are not necessarily five times as beautiful. No one tells them that words are valuable, that they need to be chosen perfectly, that effort goes into the positioning of each word, and, crucially, its removal if it is not the absolute best one for the job.

So, grown-up now, Arabella and George begin to write novels. They write for themselves, because they must be true to their souls. They put everything into their oeuvres, their whole beings, all the power of language that they can muster. They read their work aloud to themselves, over and over again. They make themselves cry and shiver with the piercing anguish of their prose.

One day, they are ready to send their oeuvres off to publishers. They visit a well-known blog, called Help! I Need a Publisher! - though, in fact, they believe that they should really be on a blog called "Help! I'm a Publisher and I Really Need You, You Fabulous Writer!" And they follow all the stunning advice about covering letters and synopses and sample chapters and tailoring the submission properly to the right publisher. They don't even include any toffee, or glitter, or naked photos of themselves, though George is tempted because he has a kind of Byronic air of which he is more than faintly proud.

And they are rejected. Because you can bet your bottom dollar that their work is over-written. Thing is that A & G, potentially talented though they may be, are totally up themselves with the beauty of their prose and they have forgotten that this is not about them: it's about the story / work / book /reader. Of course, we must write from the heart and I would never advise selling out at the expense of the quality of your writing - though you may earn more if you do - but if you put yourself and the pleasure YOU derive from your own words above the work itself and the pleasure the reader will take from it then you may as well talk under water.

Help! How do I know if I'm doing this horrible over-writing thing?
So far, I've suggested a cause and a result, and you'll have gleaned something general about what over-writing is, but I haven't shown you how to spot it in your own work. It's easier to spot in others' work, because it's damned irritating. It's like seeing someone a bit over-dressed for the occasion - you know, when someone has just gone that little bit too far to show off the gorgeous legs and Manolo Blahniks when all we're doing is digging a ditch; or perhaps like wearing two diamond necklaces - very vulgar, dahling. It's showing off, preening, and no one responds well to it. When we find over-writing in someone else's work, we may mutter under our breath, "Ok, ok, you really fancy yourself, don't you?" and it gets in the way of the story that we were trying to read.

And this is the main point about over-writing: it gets in the way. It ends up hiding the true beauty underneath, covering it with glitz and frills.

So, on the basis that you are looking carefully at every word you use, because I know you are, here are the questions I think you should ask yourself when checking your work for over-writing. Ask yourself these things especially when it's a piece of description, high emotion, or when you are feeling particularly proud of yourself:
  • have I paced the surrounding sentences so that this bit has enough space to work? So, if my gem is surrounded by loads of other gems, is it going to be noticed? No? So, bin some gems. Give the purple sentence some space. You can't see purple on a background of purple
  • have I said the same thing twice? (I do this a lot. I even do it quite often.) Or if not exactly the same then is half my description more powerful than the other half?
  • have I used three adjectives where one (or a different phrase altogether) would have worked harder and maybe ended up being more meaningful?
  • is this in fact a bit of action where the reader doesn't want to be held back by description anyway? Will the reader be tempted to skip to the action?
  • is this actually beautiful or is it in fact absurdly flowery? Am I being like a child who thinks that My Little Bride Pony is genuinely tasteful? Am I being greedy and deluded?
  • if it is genuinely beautiful, is it in keeping with the rest of the work / section? Am I "in voice"?
  • have I been guilty of "showing, not telling"? (This is often over-used as a crit - sometimes, telling is the right thing to do, but only if it's the right thing to do. I've written about it here and here.)
  • have I overdone the adverbs? Especially in dialogue tags - eg. "she said, resignedly" (because it would be much better and more skilful if you showed in other ways that the person spoke resignedly - otherwise [think about it] the reader won't know how to read it until after reading it and getting to your adverb, by which time [if you're a crappy writer] the reader will have read it excitedly or poignantly or something quite differently.
  • if I cut this paragraph by 25% would it be even better? (Yes, it would, trust me.)
One trouble is: over-writing is all relative. What's beautiful prose to someone is self-indulgence to another. You have to work out where you want to be on the spectrum. Michel Faber is my writing hero - his prose is gorgeous, his imagination extreme and his vocabulary and imagery rich and rolling, yet he thinks about every word (or he seems to) and every word works. You have to read every word because there are clues everywhere and you can't afford to miss them. That's how I'd love to write. But everyone's different and I'm not saying other styles aren't just as valuable. Just make sure you're clear about what you want and whether your readers want the same.

I'm currently going through my next novel, Wasted, with my ruthless internal editor's hat on. The novel is done and dusted and my editor wants me to release it for copy-editing, but I'm convinced there are more things wrong with it. One of the things I'm looking for, because I tend to get carried away, is over-writing.

I thought I'd give you three extracts that I picked up and thought about at length:
1. "Their heads tell them that this is fake, ordinary, or has a boring explanation - Farantella is ill or messing around with them."
There's an example of "the cliché of three": fake, ordinary, boring. I realised that ordinary and boring are too similar to be useful, so I changed it to, "Their heads tell them that this is fake, or has an ordinary explanation." No frills, no fancy stuff. No showing off.
2. "For they both feel it: that there is something heavy in the caravan, something thickening the air, a chill breath of strangeness."
This one I haven't finished with. It feels over-written, though it occurs at a moment where I am wanting the reader to pause and savour the atmosphere. But it's that "cliché of three" again, and I'm not sure I'm happy. I'll have to think about it. It may get to stay. Or it may not. I'd rather think of something with one or two phrases, otherwise it looks as though I'm struggling to find the right phrase.
3. "Soon, but not very soon, disentangled but still with the blush of him hot on her skin, Jess goes into her house and smiles goodbye to Jack, standing there, watching her."
This gets to stay. This baby lives. Jack and Jess are passionately in love and every touch is almost unbearably electric. I need to show this, even though I have not described their kiss. I am "showing" the effects of the kiss, the parting of their skin, rather than "telling" you about the kiss. (Frankly, showing and not telling with kissing is often preferable - the imagination can fill in the details without feeling as though the author is being a voyeur ...) So, I judge it not over-written but strong. You may disagree! Of course, all this is about context, and you haven't seen the contexts, but I wanted to show you a little of how I go about trying to be ruthless about over-writing. And sometimes failing.

Do remember that in the end you have to judge this yourself. Some genres require and tolerate greater or lesser levels of prose; different books and different topics require a different treatment.

For example, my first novel, Mondays are Red, is heavily loaded with description, which in a different context you might call over-writing. But it shows a boy waking from a coma, hugely disorientated and with an acquired and exaggerated version of the sensory condition, synaesthesia. So, you get pretty over-the-top description and a deliberately confusing multi-sensory layering - it's a book you either love or hate, depending on whether you can let yourself go with the strange descriptions. Whereas Wasted has whole pages with virtually no adjectives and adverbs at all, completely pared back, interspersed with the occasional sentence suddenly rich in description. The intention there is that you will notice the description much more starkly, because it will stand out.

It's that thing about not being able to see purple against a purple background.

But, whatever you're writing and whoever your reader, it is worth considering whether you can apply these adages to your work:

Less is often more
Flowery is not good - delicately floral is.
Over-writing is in the eye of the beholder - and you do care about your beholder
It requires much greater skill to say something in a few words than in many
And finally, that old chestnut:

If in doubt, leave it out.

If you apply that last one correctly you cannot be guilty of over-writing. It's the most important task of the internal editor: to ensure that every word works and earns its place.

Finally, finally, newbies to this blog, or people with duff memories like mine, may be wondering what Big Mistake 1 and Big Mistake 2 were. They were, respectively, Voice and Pace. And the greatest of these is voice.

Voice defines you and defines your book. It's the hardest thing to teach. Compared to voice, over-writing is a complete doddle. So, no excuses now and no pressure. Go and seek out your over-written passages and where you find them, cut them out. And watch how something much stronger appears.

Friday, 11 September 2009


On the other hand, emerging from a migraine (see below) doesn't mean I can't push you towards someone else with wise words and no headache. Here are 17 reasons why manuscripts are turned down. It's nearly a year old, but some things don't change. "The Adventurous Writer" has other useful lists of tips. As with most lists, they're not exhaustive but a good start.

Maybe over-writing is number 18. Actually, it's kind of number 10 on that list, but number 10 doesn't quite cover what I have to say about over-writing. Over-writing is a subject close to my heart, since it's something I can be guilty of myself and also something that stopped me being published for so long.

By the way, why did some loser send me two crappy comments with weird personal abuse? OK, I don't think I deserve a medal or an award but I also don't think I deserve crappy ignorant abuse. I don't get paid enough. Er, actually I don't get paid anything, so please piss off with your anonymous cowardice and let me get on with engaging with real writers trying to get published. And maybe consider not being drunk or stoned before you send your pathetic weirdness. Because of you, I have had to eliminate the option for anonymous comments, which is a shame because some decent people have perfectly valid reasons for being anonymous. You, you're just a loser.

Told you I had a headache. Most of you don't even know what I'm talking about because I removed the pathetic comments. Disagreement I welcome; inane loserness I don't. If you don't like me, don't read my blog - I don't ask you to. Haven't you got better things to do? go and hang out with the other nasty people - they'll make you feel so much better.

I've said my piece. And now I feel much better, too.

Monday, 7 September 2009


In my arbitrary way, I hereby declare the "You must be joking" competition closed. You may have noticed that I forgot to say what the prize would be. So, I am now happy to announce that the prize for getting both answers correct within my time-scale would almost certainly have been a vast amount of money. Sadly, no one got both answers correct. I am devastated.

The correct answers

Many of you guessed that one of the sentences I'd made up was No 22:
"The Extremely Envious Elf: Ernie is an Elf. Even though he has lots of possessions, he's always envious of everyone. One day, he meets a Pixie, (Percy) who is crying and Ernie learns that actually he's a very lucky Elf and he stops being envious. This is, I feel, a lesson which children do need to learn these days. Also, I have chosen names for the characters which will help children learn the sounds of letters, thus helping them improve their reading. For example, Envious Ernie and Percy the Pixie. There are others."
Now, ok, it might have seemed obviously rubbish. As Rik cleverly pointed out, it couldn't actually have been genuine because it would be too identifiable and I'd hate to ruin the chances of the brilliant author of such a stunning idea by enabling all of you to steal the concept, as I'm sure you would love to do. Seriously, though, this is just the sort of "plot" that is offered to agents and publishers on a regular basis. I have been sent several Percy the Pixie ideas myself and I'm not even an agent or publisher. And such authors always labour the moral message and all the "learning potential" of their stories. These are the sort of stories Enid Blyton might have written as a joke when suffering from a very high fever at the age of 8.

I am very proud of the fact that NONE of you guessed my other made-up extract. It was No. 4:
"I recommend that you also try to sell Animation Film Rights as I feel that my story has real potential in that area. I am happy to offer these rights to you for your use, subject to an agreement between us, which I am confident will be forthcoming."

Again, this is something that aspiring authors very often do talk about. Which is why you obviously didn't realise I made it up. Hehe. As you very well know, giving professional advice to the potential agent or publisher is absolutely not the right thing to do.

I noticed that vast numbers of you thought it was No. 6:
"I know you ask for a synopsis but I've found that such a thing rather defeats the purpose of sending sample chapters and tends to be an unwelcome exercise for all concerned."
Yep, hard to believe, but true. I've seen similar excuses for not writing synopses. And things along the lines of "I know this is what your submission guidelines say but I have decided instead to ..."

A lot of you also thought that No 18 must be made up:
"I have printed a copy of the book, complete with 289 illustrations, from my Toshiba Satellite with Windows Vista with an Hewlett Packard all-in-one printer (jpeg prints)."
I know - the mind boggles as to what this person was thinking at the moment of writing that. We'll never know.

Apart from my sneaky No. 4, there were several others which none of you opted for. You are obviously becoming wise to the extent of absurdity of some unpublished authors and it no longer surprises you that anyone would do any of the following:

  • write nonsense badly: "I have put my properties in approximate order of commerciality, I hope this is as convenient as your stated preference"
  • not be able to write a proper sentence: "I feel with a little investment by an agent could really have an impact on the Children's writing world."
  • criticise a whole swathe of published literature: "I have not enclosed any synopsis but I will say that my work does not include any monsters or magic or cruel adults, unlike all the other children's books you see nowadays."
  • write a drivellingly powerless reason for reading on: "My writing activates pure imagination and fun and I have tested them on some children and they have really loved them. A few adults have too."
Now, there were no winners and no prizes but I hope you had fun and you deserve some points for effort. I'm going to bestow some special (and very covetable) Order of the Crabbit Old Bat awards on some of you.

The worthy recipients are:

  • Rik - for perspicacity (see above)
  • Melinda - because I liked her explanation for her choices: "because they were well written and made sense so were obviously fake"
  • The Proe - for the irony in his response: "I know you asked for a tie-breaker recommendation but I've found that such a thing tends to be an unwelcome exercise for all concerned and would not truthfully convey the full impact of my choices and liverwurst."
  • Catdownunder - for choosing to recommend one of my own books ... ( I did expect a lot more crawling from the rest of you actually, but there we go - you'll know for next time)
Huge thanks to everyone for entering, for recommending your favourite books, for providing me with almost endless fun and for not winning the prize. I don't know about you but I think we've really covered covering letters now and should all go away and do some actual writing.

Next, I am going to be going on and on and on and on and on and on about a topic dear to my heart: over-writing. That's when writers go on and on and on when they should have stopped long before. And when they get above themselves and full of themselves and up themselves and think that everyone really wants to hang around listening to their glossy, sensuous, gorgeous, sinuous prose and they play with similes like a siamese with a shrew, and load their sentences with alliteration and assonance and all aspects of authorial artfulness.

And their readers couldn't give a damn and just want to know what happens.

Friday, 4 September 2009


Time to celebrate. House-warming for my new address and a big thank you to all those of you who have stuck by me. Oh, and lovely follower Brenda has an agent! See comments after this post.

So, a competition, don't you think? Because parties must have prizes and games and all manner of fun. I'm providing chocolate and sparkly wine. Well, I'm consuming it anyway, and you're welcome to join me if you can find a clean glass. Jane Smith is going to make a cake if there's enough wind in Yorkshire to power her electricity or enough peat in the bogs for her aga and Lynn's beagle is getting the blender ready for the margharitas.

The competition is called: YOU MUST BE JOKING!

Here's how it works. I extract some bits from real covering letters that I've seen. (None written by any of you, I hope.) And amongst the real extracts I insert TWO made up examples. Your task is to guess which two I made up. And, in case of more than one correct answer, there's a tie-breaker.

Because one of the most important things a writer can do is read and be inspired by books currently being published within the relevant genre, your task is to pick a book you admire and recommend in your writerly genre and say why it's so wonderful / paradigmatic / inspirational for you. Your answer should begin:
I recommend writers of ... [YA / literary fiction / crime / whatever]... to read ............ by ............... because ...[no more than 15 words here]
(Secret: we won't actually need a tie-breaker because I predict that no-one will get the answer. Thing is, a whole load of wrong answers is going to be very amusing for me but teach us nothing. Whereas, you writers all sharing your knowledge and love of books will be useful all round. Sneaky? Me?)

Here are the extracts. So, which did I make up? Should be so simple .... Just give the two numbers and your tie-breaker in the comments box below.
  1. I feel, that to only send some some sample chapters, for which you ask for in your guidelines would not truthfully convey the full impact of my work.
  2. My story is aimed at children of all ages, including adults.
  3. Dear Ms [name redacted] or Sir or Madam,
  4. I recommend that you also try to sell Animation Film Rights as I feel that my story has real potential in that area. I am happy to offer these rights to you for your use, subject to an agreement between us, which I am confident will be forthcoming.
  5. I have put my properties in approximate order of commerciality, I hope this is as convenient as your stated preference
  6. I know you ask for a synopsis but I've found that such a thing rather defeats the purpose of sending sample chapters and tends to be an unwelcome exercise for all concerned.
  7. I have a Dream, it's different than others.
  8. I'm Irish.
  9. I would appreciate you take on my work by criticising the structure.
  10. It's an "Idea," Weather you belief or not.
  11. I have had interest in my stories from professionals in the Literary World.
  12. The children's market is as much writing for adults as it is for children and I believe my writing satisfies both.
  13. A little about me: I believe that coolness is emotional constipation.
  14. I feel with a little investment by an agent could really have an impact on the Children's writing world.
  15. (sorry, can't include this one - just too ridiculous ... please ignore number 15. There is no number 15. Honestly. My health is at stake here. I have gone quite mad. It gets worse ...)
  16. All pages are included but will probably need some alterations for the Publishing stage. This will be your prerogrative to advise.
  17. It is with great pleasure I include my synopsis's below as a small portion of the many manuscripts I have written.
  18. I have printed a copy of the book, complete with 289 illustrations, from my Toshiba Satellite with Windows Vista with an Hewlett Packard all-in-one printer (jpeg prints).
  19. I have not enclosed any synopsis but I will say that my work does not include any monsters or magic or cruel adults, unlike all the other children's books you see nowadays.
  20. My writing activates pure imagination and fun and I have tested them on some children and they have really loved them. A few adults have too.
  21. Here is my first synopsis'.
  22. (And here is one of the synopses:) The Extremely Envious Elf: Ernie is an Elf. Even though he has lots of possessions, he's always envious of everyone. One day, he meets a Pixie, (Percy) who is crying and Ernie learns that actually he's a very lucky Elf and he stops being envious. This is, I feel, a lesson which children do need to learn these days. Also, I have chosen names for the characters which will help children learn the sounds of letters, thus helping them improve their reading. For example, Envious Ernie and Percy the Pixie. There are others.
  23. Many professionals have called my stories "quite delightful" and "show lots of potential".
  24. If you don't agree, no problem!
  25. I also have another style of writing entirely and I would be happy to show it to you if you don't like it.
Answers in the comment box. One entry per person.

And now, I need something stronger than coffee.