Wednesday, 28 October 2009


I had a question the other day from a blog-reader and I thought it might apply to several of you, or at least that you'd be interested in the answer. So I asked if I could reproduce it here. And of course the answer was yes.

The email started with all sorts of thanks, which I gratefully accepted, since it's frankly all I'm going to get except the occasional [too occasional] chocolate gift. And then it went on:

"But to the point: the reason I'm mailing you is because I have a question. It developed after reading your most recent post (A True Story of a Stuggling Writer), though I've had it for as long as I've been writing; I guess I just never thought of asking. If it's a ridiculously stupid question, then I'm really sorry, but nevertheless:

In your post, you said: BS is serious about her writing, as she should be. The fact that she crosses genres tells me so  -  she just loves to write and is doing it from the heart.

So let's say a published writer has three works in progress, and each is a different genre. One is horror, one is contemporary romance, the other is fantasy. And each is completely different from the last.

My question is, would a publisher be willing to publish all these stories by the same author? Aren't authors usually encouraged to write under a single genre. I'm thinking of most of the famous authors I know. Like Meg Cabot, for example, has written a multitude of books, but they all contain romance. Would it be possible for an author to go from complete romance to complete fantasy? Like jumping from Pride and Prejudice to Lord of the Rings?

Again, I'm sorry if this is an insanely weird question. Hopefully it won't get you crabbity."
Course it didn't get me crabbity. It takes a lot more than that.

Firstly, let me say that although I write for teenagers, my books very much cross genres  -  YA fiction includes the same genres as adult fiction. So, I have written historical, futuristic, psychological and crime thrillers, light-hearted (though that was for younger kids) and adventure. And let's not even go down the Thomas the bloody Tank Engine route. Or track.

So, on that basis it would appear not to matter. But before I go on let me say that sometimes even then (as in, even granted that I'm reasonably doing okayish with my skittery bumble-bee approach) it doesn't feel particularly sensible. The disadvantages are that someone who likes my historical fiction may be surprised not to like my other stuff and then decide not to try my next book. Now, this must not be a problem because my publishers seem to be equally happy whatever I produce, so I just say nothing and keep my fingers crossed. I rather like the fact that no one knows what I'm going to do next, but it may not be fabulous for my sales.

BUT, for adult writers it's a lot harder. When adult writers cross genres, they tend to do it after being successful in one genre, and / or may use two different names. Think of Iain Banks / Iain M Banks [not much disguise there, Iain...], and John Banville /Benjamin Black.

In view of that, it would be very inadvisable for an unpublished author to offer three simultaneous different genres. If the writing is utterly stupendous in all three, the publisher / agent may be interested, but no more so than if it was stupendous in just one: they still must build a brand / name for you and this can't practically be done in three different markets, because that's what it is. Even though many / most readers read in different genres, as an intended market each group is discrete. That's discrete, not discreet, before you become confused.

The fact that you write exuberantly and passionately is great and will stand you in good stead but you should, in my view, decide which is your most sellable one, and go with that. Then, when that's contracted, hit 'em with something else. They are most likely to say, "Hang on, we need to build you as hot-shot crime writer, first  -  give us a chance." But you can still do that other writing later, perhaps under a different name, perhaps for a different publisher. But possibly same agent.

Ah, I hear you say, you said "possibly the same agent". So, can't I hit the agent with all three to start with? I'd suggest not, not until you've hooked her / him with the brilliant saleability of one of your books. You could say that you've got two other books written which you'd be happy for her to see. But major on one.

Any input from anyone? Anyone disagree? Of course, there will be exceptions but exceptions don't prove rules: they are just very irritating exceptions. I hate exceptions. They are untidy.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009


Because I'm about to start my very own literary consultancy, Pen2Publication  -  gulp  -  I won't be doing many more of these Submission Spotlights. (So please don't send any more.) But I thought I'd try to use a small number of the backlog first.

If you haven't commented on one of these before and don't know the system, please go and read a couple. (Click on the label "Submission Spotlights" in the list of posts on the right.)

Remember: all I have asked for is a covering letter and first 500 words  -  NO synopsis or anything. (That's why the letter says there's a synopsis but there isn't, if you see what I mean.) Please ignore any errors of formatting  -  it will be my fault.

Comments should be constructive, honest and informed. If you are someone who doesn't normally read this genre, say so but DO still comment. And please, everyone, DO comment. Our brave author needs you!


Dear (name of Literary Agent)

Please find enclosed a synopsis and the first three chapters of my novel Filbert’s Mind Rooms (literary, 72,000 words) for your consideration of representing my work.

After a powerful dream, Donald Filbert wakes up in a wardrobe. He dresses as a woman then takes a train to his new job as a security guard of an empty office block. Filbert is mentally ill, a prisoner within his own mind. Due to his strange mental state, he mixes thoughts of the past and present with surreal fantasy, relating these to a recalled psychiatrist.

There are two tragedies in his life: the loss of his father and the loss of his wife Birnadette. His mental barriers which screen him from recalling those poignant memories are slowly eroded until he finally remembers the shocking truth.

I have written another novel entitled Stubb, A Gothic Tale (gothic/magic realism, 74,000 words) and I am writing my third novel called The Turquoize Traveller (magic realism, 20,000 WIP).

I would be glad to send you the complete manuscript of Filbert’s Mind Rooms for your review. Please note that my proposal is on submission to other agents.

Thank you for your time and consideration, and I look forward to your earliest reply.

Yours Sincerely

First 500 words of Filbert's Mind Rooms (slightly over to a natural break):
The fisherman is coarse faced with rudder ears; he hoses down already slippery slats, moonlight painted. Restless knife-sharpeners: one touches an oilstone, engrains oil in whorls on his thumb. Spectators with white faces huddle and blink at whipping wind.
‘Let’s hold your hand.’ She is gazing at me and I ask: ‘When, then?’

That mournful horn answers from the ship shape ahead, ebony block against grey, avoiding spotlights from the quay.

A growling from the generator. Chains, powdered with rust, scrape up the slats and become taut in shifting shadows. For every link consumed on a winch reel, the waves give another.

‘See?’ Birnadette says, ‘not long,’ and this difficult watery birth (umbilical cords of iron) begins.

The tail fin first – as tall as I stand – then the body emerging with the sea foaming from the labour. Those tons of flesh keep on coming, gigantic and glistening. The harpoon is an obscene desecration of its flesh. The tip protrudes from the beast, gouging the slats. All is a scraping, rattling, creaking, until even the wind quietens and the generator stops.

This slaughtered and humiliated whale is longer than a train carriage. The bank of flesh builds from the flagging fin curled over those cruel chains.

The butchers sharpen their knives – hear the hissing steel. I shall visit this wondrous mammal. It shouldn’t be here under these cold stars and stares. Its place is the empire of the deep, its monstrous yet refined form surging within an ocean. What stratum of consciousness have we insolently wrenched it from? I have plucked one of the filtering bones and it is so pliable, I almost expect a tone to be produced, perhaps harp-like. I’m able to stroke the inside of that cavernous mouth. It’s like a fur and as soft to the touch. I’ll run my hand over its smooth leather blueish skin.

Step back to the side now. A fishermen has raised a curved knife. He is slitting the creature about its head with a honed experience, his yellow oilskins squeaking.

Birnadette is even-mouthed, breathy, chilled; I stand behind her and bring her to me. She pulls the sides of my coat around her while I lightly rest my chin on her head. I smell shampoo mixed with a stronger, alien odour from the air. Am I imagining the whale breathing so gently as to be barely perceptible? Now more chains slither like tentacles. Hooks are hasped to their ends then embedded into that slit. The sea is sending fingers of foam racing up the sloped slats, trying to take back her child, soughing and whooshing; never reaching.

The generator groans into life again. Those chains jerk on the hooks until the thick skin folds back from about the slit. It’s being pulled away with a loud ripping noise, exposing fibrous white blubber with the inner surface of skin looking like the pith of an orange. Clouds of stinking steam rise to reek this night air. Dancing, prancing mad shadows. No pause to allow remorse or mourning: the flashing knives have been plunged into the peeled animal. They are cutting sizeable chunks of red meat and laying them on a metal platform as though building blocks to some gruesome nightmare igloo.

Over to you all for comments. And thank you to the author "gyroscope". Good luck!

PS  -  yes, I have changed "course-faced" to "coarse-faced" as requested  -  sorry I didn't get to this as soon as gyroscope asked.

Monday, 26 October 2009


The moment you've been waiting for is upon us: the announcement of the ten winners of the Hotel Chocolat Halloween Writing Competition. Ugh, I hate this. In fact, I hate this so much that I didn't do the judging at all but "out-sourced" it, which is the posh word for wimping out. Thing is, several of you have become friends and it wouldn't be fair. Oh, OK: what I mean is I couldn't take the strain of your potential disapprobation. Not to mention the fact that several of you actually tried to bribe me and do all sorts of inappropriate things to sway me. Many of which could easily have worked. So, I thought the easiest and most honest thing was to pass the buck, and I did. Buck-passing I can do.

So, do not blame me if you don't like the judgement. It wisnae me, as they say over in the west.

By the way, I am assuming that you all have the right to submit these works for publication here  -  in other words that they are your own words and copyright is yours. If they've been previously published somewhere, you need to make sure you have the rights. Paranoid, me? If you have any doubts, let me know.

I loved lots of your stories, including many that didn't make the list. If I'd been judging there might have been a few differences, though not many. As you can imagine, it's easy to come up with a larger list than we need and much harder to decide at the margins. I asked the judge not to give an order of merit, but he felt that one was outstandingly a winner. I allowed him that but when he also wanted to do a second and third, I told him to shut up and stop interfering.

Remember that there's not much objectivity that can be brought to bear when you get lots of stories of a high standard. (As we did.) Can you tell I find this difficult?? The judge tried to include a range of styles and genres, so that there's something for everyone. And for goodness' sake, it's ONLY chocolate!

Another thing  -  I was delighted to get a number of entries from teenagers. I think it was the chocolate that did it. I decided to reserve one prize for the best young writer  -  and I planned to judge that one, since I claim to understand teenagers and used to teach them, but the judge refused to let me. There was an amusing mother and daughter competition going on, and some witty rivalry by email, and I was so hoping that both mother and daughter would be winners. Unfortunately, that didn't happen, but I think you'll see that there was a happy ending after all...

OK, stop waffling. I'm going to do the runners-up first, in no particular order. Hooray for:

Sally Zigmond  -  who won my last creative writing comp so she's maintaining a v high standard. Sally's a talented short story-writer and I loved both her entries. This was the one the judge picked. It's mysterious and you can read it in different ways, but the description is intense:
The box alone was seductive. She ran her finger along the black velvet, the black satin ribbons. She teased open the lid to reveal, nestling within, ten dark mounds of pleasure; ten dusky, creamy mouthfuls of chocolate bliss. She savoured, licked; devoured.
      Soft and sated, she opened the note now revealed. “Your novels are my pleasure. They woo me. I am utterly yours. The next one you write will seal the bond. You are mine. Forever.
       Fear froze her. Her fingers were dust; her keyboard ashes. She would never write again. She had sold her soul for chocolate.

Julia Dalby  -  very chilling indeed and highly original. There's a lot going on in this story:
"For you," he says. He takes the small lilac box, and smiles; her sweet beauty warms him, even after love.
She reaches for something. "Please. Post?"  
He takes the sealed envelope. 
"I pay back, for stamps." Her eyes hold his. "Please."
Downstairs, he opens it. Her language, but there, this address. Clever girl! She has eyes and ears, learns quickly. Near the door, men sit and drink. He hands the letter to one, slaps the shoulder of another. He won't return for a while; damaged flesh takes time to heal.
Upstairs, moments later, a box of chocolates is crushed underfoot.
Barb Ettridge  -  Barb's story is told from the POV of a chocolate bar, about to be eaten by a writer who always rewards herself with chocolate at the end of a chapter. Hmm, I identify with that! The chocolate bar has a real personality that comes out in this piece. And Barb nicely avoids over-writing  -  difficult when writing about chocolate...
She's writing again.
The clack of the keys has a determined sound, so she must have found a
way to write the cliff-hanger. I heard her muttering about it earlier.
How she was going to get them together, while giving a reason that
their love could never be.
A pause.
Please don't let her be finished. Writer's block, procrastination,
maybe her laptop crashed. Anything but the end of the chapter.
She's here at the pantry.
Oh god, she's opening my foil wrapper.
Clare Donaldson  -  Clare is the mother whose daughter also entered. I really want to give her daughter, Isla, a prize too, not just because I liked her story but also for very humorous emails to me, in which she said that her mother had far too much chocolate and shouldn't win. (I've probably caused war in the Donaldson house now.) ANYway, I am going to give Isla an extra prize: any one of my books, signed. I know, not as good as chocolate but may last longer. Here's Clare's story, and I think that to have so much structure in a 100 word story is pretty clever. I cried, idiot that I am.
Remnants of chewed paper. Brown crumbs. Finn’s brown-smeared muzzle. He stands to greet me, but collapses, unable to bear the weight of his swollen body.
A note on the table. Kate’s writing, “A Hallowe’en treat.”
Ears buzz. Heart thumps. How much chocolate is fatal? How long before it takes effect?  Fumbling, I phone the vet. Engaged.
I sit on the floor and stroke Finn’s silky head. He gazes at me, his eyes like pools of melting chocolate – the irony does not escape me.
Redial. Engaged.
Text from Kate. “Hope you enjoy the treacle scones!”
David O'Connor Thompson  -  another previous winner keeping up standards! David doesn't mention fear explicitly but the story makes me feel fear. It's very chilling.
Dear Rose,
I’m very, very sorry. I promise on my life it will never happen again. Promise. Promise. Promise. It was all my fault. I just lost it but you know how I hate it when you ask me where I’ve been. I’ve told you again and again NOT to ever question me on where I go or what I do. But you NEVER learn. Anyway I’ve left you these chocolates. They all have soft centres so you can eat them. Or suck them. Will come to hospital again tomorrow and hope you’re awake by then.
Love you loads
Douglas Bruton  -  a subtle story which almost contains no ingredients of chocolate, fear or the written word, unless you look carefully.
 The waitress, Alegria, carries his order on a tray - a cup of coffee and a plate of white chocolate alfajores biscuits. She checks the clock.
‘Good morning,’ she says, so quietly that Xavier de Rosas does not hear. He is reading, like always.
She sets the cup before him and, a little to the side, his plate of biscuits. Her hand shakes.
‘Enjoy your coffee,’ says Alegria, giving her words kiss shapes and small sound.
Today her hair is different and she is afraid that he might not like it. She waits for him to look up. She waits.
Gina Langridge, with a simple idea but with sparse and clear prose. The difference between the ecstasy and the shock of discovery is cleverly done, using pace to create atmosphere.
Lucy eased off the purple wrapper, savouring the moment. The silver foil was harsh against her fingers as she pulled it back to reveal the dark chocolate within. Snap! She broke off a single square and placed it in her mouth. Bitter flavours melted into sweet. She held it on her tongue, allowing the heavenly liquid to seep backwards and slip down her throat. Her eyes closed.
Her eyes flew open. Her heart raced as she saw the shopkeeper pointing to the sign: "Shoplifters will be prosecuted."
"Forty pence, please, and next time pay for it first."
Simon Kewin had two great entries, each very different from the other; one was a riotous werewolf / vampire story with a twist and a great modern edge. And the other this, with a cleverly inscrutable ending:
The waiter's face was expressionless as he set down the dark chocolate torte. Stephen sat still, hollow with fear. He had barely eaten anything all meal. The cake was between them on the cleared table, the words piped onto it in white chocolate. The question he couldn’t bring himself to ask her. He regretted the whole thing now, all the arrangements. It was a disaster.

He looked at her. There was confusion on her face. She hadn't wanted dessert. She was reading the words. There was a silence. Then she looked up at him. Her eyes were liquid with tears.
The teenage winner is Alexandra Brogan, aged 13, with a sinister story for Halloween  -  I particularly like the way she doesn't tell us what the drug was and leaves it to us to guess. Well done, Alexandra:
Slowly the final drop of liquid seeped out of the bottle and into the gooey mountain of melted chocolate...This would be the ultimate stage of Dr. Smithe’s  plan, all that had to be done now was to wait and watch the sweets be made and bought by thousands of unexpecting mothers. Which would in turn mean that hundreds of thousands of children will have these delicious sweets at the bottom of their trick or treat bags... This drug only did one thing and only Dr Smithe could make it so unpleasant. This Halloween could be the best yet....
AND the overall winner IS: Dayspring MacLeod. Well done!
Rose sat alone with her square of precious rationed chocolate.  The family were gathered round the radio, but Rose couldn’t hear anything.  Instead, she savoured things she could feel; things like the dull rich taste of the dark chocolate, the way it chipped off on her teeth and coated her tongue. 
    Mrs Jackson was getting up from her chair.  She wrote on a piece of paper and handed it to Rose.  More bombing in London.  So Mother was still in danger.
    For others, fear was the sound of German bombers roaring overhead.  For Rose, fear would always taste like chocolate.
I love the combination of war-time setting, deaf girl, and synaesthesia so I was very glad the judge also liked it so much.

Well done to Dayspring, Alexandra and all of you! And to the others, thanks so much for entering and for the very high quality of your work. I loved reading your entries and not a single one of them was badly written. There's some real talent out there, and NOT just amongst those ten winners.

Meanwhile, I need UK postal addresses for Gina, Douglas, Dayspring and David (asap, please) and then I'll let generous Hotel Chocolat know who to send the delicious Boo Boxes to.

Meanwhile, meanwhile  -  I just heard today that I'm about to have my very first Blog Baby! Yes, a blog-reader who was unpublished when she started reading this blog, soon landed herself a deal and the book is being published on Nov 4th. Even though it's obviously nothing to do with me, she was kind enough to thank me. More news when I interview her. (I wonder if she will have calmed down by then? Let's hope not.)

Friday, 23 October 2009


Well, we had the story of struggle; now we need a story of success.

First, though, I should pause a while and consider your feelings. Thing is, it's easy for me to jump for joy about another writer being published for the first time, but I remember how I felt when I was unpublished and heard about another bloody debut author laughing all the way to the launch party.

that's what

So, if you have a tendency towards that, brace yourselves. And then, if possible, summon up the heart to say ahhhhhh and awwww. Because this is really very sweet.

What am I talking about? Here she is to tell you all about it  -  Cally Taylor with her new book Heaven can Wait (apt title)?? The post is from three weeks ago but now her book is actually out. And you can buy it here.

Hooray for success, because it can happen. And hooray for writers amongst you who can find it in themselves to be a lot nicer than I could have been....

And, most importantly, listen, learn, practise and hold onto your dream but with a very important dollop of knowledge and understanding.

(Do you want to know a secret? It doesn't go away, that feeling of wanting to stroke your new book. I stroke mine and hold them to my heart, a bit like a baby, and smell them and breathe them in. There's one thing I don't do, though: open them. God, you never know what you might find.)

Wednesday, 21 October 2009


On the one hand, you could call me lazy. On the other hand you could take into account that I am working about as many hours as I can stay awake, I have just finished a hectic round of school events up and down the country, I am putting together the whole concept of Pen2Publication and ... WE ARE PUTTING OUR HOUSE ON THE MARKET, according to my beloved. Which means that I have to keep tidying and putting things away and pretending I don't have a smelly dog. And baking coffee and brewing bread and trying to make it look as though I always have a house full of fresh flowers.

All of which goes to excuse why I am now going to post TWO questions from Simon, one of my lovely readers, and hand over to you all with only the briefest of answers from me. (Brief? Me? God, there must be something going on.)

Simon says:
"Re overseas agents? Is approaching one a good idea? There are quite a few agents in the USA who I'd like to approach but I'm really not sure if it's a sensible approach. It's obviously harder to build up a working relationship with someone so far away. But, with all thecommunication technology available to us, perhaps it can work."
I say: assuming Simon is in the UK (?) there's not really a very good reason for doing this unless for some reason his books are particularly US-friendly and not UK-friendly. This is possible but you'd want to be sure of this. If you have a UK agent, he/she will try to sell to the US anyway, or your UK publisher will if said publisher holds the US rights. Personally, I'd have my agent in the territory* where I live. And let her organise sub-agents for foreign** rights. And very hoorayishly, she's just sold Hungarian rights for Deathwatch, for which I certainly didn't have a Hungarian agent, just a hungry one.

Edited to add (sorry  -  I was tired last night):
* I should clarify: I'm really talking about US as opposed to UK. Australia and NZ are so similar in relevant ways to the market in the UK that there's no disadvantage for an Australian author, for example, having a UK agent. It's not a matter of living nearby and popping round for coffee  -  it's a matter of having the same writer-reader mindset. And the US, much as we love you Americans, is just different. Gloriously so, of course, but different.

** by which I mean foreign language.

Then Simon said:
"The other question is to do with sample chapters of a novel. I'm wondering whether it is a good idea to post some chapters of my a novel-looking-for-an-agent-or-a-publisher. Is that a sensible piece of platform-building or is it dangerously close to self-publishing and/or using up first publication rights?"
OK. What does this platform-building entail? Because if it's a couple of hundred hits and 25 comments, this is not a platform. It's very very unlikely that you'll build a platform so powerful that it would make any difference to their decision. Also, yes, you do risk technically blowing first rights. If this is genuinely a taster, a sample, hmmm, possibly  -  but actually it's most likely that an editor would want to edit it anyway, in which case you haven't acheived anything except confuse your potential readers. Also, a taster is not going to work unless the actual book appears very soon afterwards  -  for example, when publishers offer taster chapters this is always very shortly before publication.

So, I'd say that posting your chapters online can do very little good and could do harm.

Edited to add: Sarah, in one of the comments below, reminded me about this excellent post on Editorial Ass.  

And now, you people full of energy and without houses to sell, please help me out with more answers on those questions.

Meanwhile, I am off to copy all the many Hotel Choc comp entries into a doc for my secret judge to judge. I am stunned by how many of you entered. I am going to need a substantial amount of fortification even just to copy and paste them all.

And thank you Simon for asking  -  you saved me having to dream up something new on a night when my shoulders are screaming with too much keyboard time!

Tuesday, 20 October 2009


Recently, a commenter who calls herself "Beleaguered Author" and blogs as "Beleaguered Squirrel" (are you sympathising already??), told us this story. Italics in square brackets are my comments. Colours are my usual flamboyance:
"I'm in what I think is an unusual situation. My first book was published by a small-but-respected publisher who subsequently ceased trading. [Gah.] My second book was - via an agent (which I didn't have for the first) - published in a foreign country, translated into their language. Said country are not into making a big fuss of "first time" authors (apparently my first book doesn't count), so it has been rather non-eventish for me. [Not sure if this is a line you've been spun  -  on the other hand, actually, most books are non-eventish and it's all somewhat in the eye of the writer]. No author publicity, no big marketing bucks, and sadly the book hasn't made much of an impact. No reviews apart from two critical Amazon reviews: a one-star and a three-star. Personally I think it was a bad translation (I happen to speak the language concerned) and was pitched at entirely the wrong market. But then I would say that. [You could be right, though. And bad luck with the Amazon reviewers, who may or may not have been drunk at 3am when they wrote those reviews.]

"Unfortunately, at around the time the foreign book was published, I lost my agent. You'll just have to believe me when I say it wasn't my fault, [I do  -  though I'd give the anonymous agent the benefit of the doubt by saying that there are often one and a half sides to the story] as it wouldn't be professional to go into details. Whether they would ever have managed to sell the book into other territories is questionable, but we'll never know now.

"So here I am, my baby is out there but unreadable in its native tongue, and no agent will touch it with a barge pole cos it has already been flogged to death by the original agent. I - egotistic author that I am - am in a massive sulk about the fact that nobody I care about can read the damn thing, and the holy grail of publication hasn't involved a single piece of ego-stroking or validation, and it feels as though it may as well not have happened. [Ugh, this is painful.]

"Indeed, I'm so depressed that I've given up writing altogether. Abandoned the third novel in first draft stage and embarked on a new career.

"Don't worry - I'm not expecting you to tell me I did the right thing by giving up. It clearly shows a lack of backbone and an excessive degree of childish sulk, the kind which would preclude a successful publishing career. [I disagree most strongly.]

"Actually I don't know what my question is. I think it was going to be something along the lines of, "Do you think sometimes a writer just has to admit they are a bit crap, and give up?" [I will answer this.] which is only the aforementioned sulkiness in a very thin disguise... or maybe, "Don't you agree that I've had a particularly raw deal? [possibly but not certainly].You feel sorry for me, right?" - which would be more of the same...

"Obviously what I need to do is either (a) keep going and make each book better than the last, or (b) stop worrying about publication - just write for the sake of it, or (c) acknowledge that I've been writing for the wrong reasons, and have a break until I can think of some better reasons to keep doing it. But stop with all the whingeing.[can you do b) ??? If you can, then you should, anyone should, but if you can't.... a) is what we should all do if we believe in ourselves. Hmmm re c)  -  HAVE you been writing for the wrong reasons? What ARE the wrong reasons? But I'm not interested in your reasons and nor are your readers  -  we only want to know if you're good enough.]

"Hmmm. Thank you. That helped. [Er, really?!]

"Oh! I thought of a question! Here it is:

"Have you come across this phenomenon before? Writers who have a book which is only ever published in one other country, translated, and with no fanfare or success? [Frankly, I haven't come across this. But it may happen. I don't think it's the central issue. The central issue is that you came close  -  more than that, you were published, but it didn't deliver success. We think that success is being published  -  it's not.] Do they get sulky about it too, or am I just outrageously ungrateful? [Oh, trust me: we are all ungrateful because we are not megastars!] So far I'm the only writer I know who has experienced this thing."
This all raises several points, as well as a few tears, and I asked BS if I could use her story to highlight a few things. She agreed.

I asked BS a few more questions but I specifically did not want to know her real name or the name of her books. Because, just for now, I don't want to read her writing  -  despite the fact that it's whether her writing is any good that's the most important question.

I asked what genre she wrote in, because whether it's lit fic or not makes a difference, or whether it's a genre that's easy to sell.
"Genre: That's part of my problem. I've tried to write to a genre, but it just doesn't seem to be something I can do without losing my own identity in what I write. "Contemporary fiction" is the laziest description. [No, it's a good description if it's the right one.] My second was described as a comic thriller, which is vaguely accurate. My first had large dollops of suspense. The second was published in an imprint devoted to "urban fiction". Both can definitely be described as quirky. My third is definitely a comic thriller. They're all for adults."
BS lives in the UK but her second novel was published by a large publisher in Germany. Also, if you'd like more details  -  and it's a moving story  -  she's written about it here.

OK, here's what I think, apart from my italicised comments above.
  • BS is serious about her writing, as she should be. The fact that she crosses genres tells me so  -  she just loves to write and is doing it from the heart; plus the fact that she's angsting so much about whether she's good enough. She's not a whinger; she doesn't sound deluded. She got published. From then on she was unlucky, on many counts. Now, her book(s) also may not have been fabulous  -  we don't know. But she got published and what happened then does not sound like her fault. (Unless she's spinning a complex tale and is in fact deluded...)
  • Stuff happens: books are published badly; some agents and publishers are rubbish (hers may not have been but some are and you won't care when you sign the contract  -  you'll only care when "stuff happens".
  • The Amazon reviews hurt. They may be right or they may be wrong. Personally, I think most Amazon reviews, even the positive ones, are suspect and I generally wouldn't trust them. But, when you get publshed you have to take them; you also have to take the fact that they can destroy you.
  • listen to this: "the holy grail of publication hasn't involved a single piece of ego-stroking or validation, and it feels as though it may as well not have happened." Publication is often not the way to eternal happiness. You are all embarking on a journey which will contain many hours of heartache. Most of which no one else will ever see. Thank God. Beleaguered Squirrel has been movingly open about it. If you knew what screws me up at night you'd be surprised  -  I am often a mess of angst and failure.
  • BS is so depressed that she gave up writing altogether. OK, that's awful but I hope it's not true. And in fact we know it's not, don't we? We know that BS will pull herself together and get back on the horse. I twice gave up writing during my 21 years of failure  -  or I said I was giving up. I was giving up outwardly. But I never really gave up. You can't. Not if you're a real writer. I don't know if she's good enough to get further than she already has  -  but gosh, I hope she is.  
Importantly, she asks: "Do you think sometimes a writer just has to admit they are a bit crap, and give up?" Yes, it would often be most helpful if that were to happen. But not if the writer is not crap. Which brings us to the important question: is BS a crap writer? I'm inclined to think that she isn't. I'm inclined to think that she hasn't written the right book yet. I'm inclined to think that she will not give up and that she will one day come up with the right book, if she carries on trying and learning and writing. I'm inclined to think that I've not got very many grounds for believing this but I do know that if I was an agent I would want to see BS's work. 

In fact, suddenly I really want to read it.

Why have I posted this? Why have I revealed the terrible heartache of the long-distance writer? Because you need to know. You need to know how good you have to be, how much you have to want it, and how even when you get it it may not be enough. In fact, if you're any good and if you want it so much, it probably won't be enough. Wanting more, being hungry, being greedy for success, being grasping and dementedly desperate are the things that will screw you up and carry you through. They will bring you heartsong and success and they will hurt you in the process.

That's the horrible paradox of writing.

Sunday, 18 October 2009


Any of you participating in NaNoWriMo this year? Do you even know what it is?? To find out, and to find out about my experiences, read how I blogged about it after doing a private version with some other children's writers and then check out the official site.

When I did my Nanowrimo, I found it very positively challenging and interesting. It was tiring, sometimes frantic, but it energised rather than exhausted me. If you decide to join in the international one, PLEASE let us know how you get on. But do prepare for it  -  you must be at the right place in a piece of writing or idea and may need to make some alterations to your routines. You'll probably need to stock up on coffee and chocolate, too.

I'm not doing the official one, because I am not in the right place and, besides, one thing I learnt was that I could do it myself, or perhaps with a friend  -  a "writing buddy". What it mostly does is force you to find time to write, nagged  -  sorry, encouraged  -  by other people. It puts writing at the top of your to-do list (where it should already be for me but often isn't); it challenges your perceptions of what you can do, your habits and your entrenched beliefs in the writing process. All those things are good.

It's something you'll love or hate. It could change your life, or at least your writing life. And for many of us, that's the biggest part we want to change.

Even if you don't do a NaNoWriMo, do consider buying this fabulous book. It's genuinely eye-opening, and I say that as someone not addicted to self-help books or books that claim to sort out my life:

And if you'd like to swing
a few pennies my way
in doing so,
please buy it through this link.

Friday, 16 October 2009


You may have noticed that I've never had a guest post on this blog. I guard my territory jealously, you see. But I know what I don't know, and one thing I don't know about (but am fascinated by) is ghost-writing. So, imagine my pleasure and surprise when the UK's most famous ghost-writer walked through my walls recently and tapped me on the shoulder. After I'd regained my equilibrium and stopped shivering, Andrew Crofts and I got communicating entirely without the use of a ouija board, and he very kindly agreed to share his knowledge AND answer your (sensible) questions.

First, a bit about the man behind the ghost:
Andrew Crofts is one of the country's leading ghostwriters. He has ghosted over 80 books in the last 20 years, a dozen of which have been Sunday Times number one bestsellers. He is also the author of "The Freelance Writer's Handbook", (Piatkus), and "Ghostwriting", (A&C Black). The latter was quoted extensively by Robert Harris in his recent thriller "The Ghost", which has just been filmed by Roman Polanski with Ewan McGregor playing the ghost.

Andrew is currently writing a series of inter-related novels for Blake Publishing about modern fame and the price it exerts on those who pursue it. The first in the series was "The Overnight Fame of Steffi McBride", to be followed early next year by "The Fabulous Dreams of Maggie de Beer".

Rather than do a full-scale interview, I decided just to focus on four things, aspects which I thought you might like to hear about.

ME: You had a background in business writing before you had your first ghosting commission  -  do you think it would be possible for an unproven / unpublished writer, however competent, to become a ghost-writer? And do you have some basic advice for how to go about building a platform from which to get that first contract? Maybe you could also say what specific skills a ghost-writer needs as opposed to another sort of writer. (I don't ask much, do I?)

"I think any writer could learn how to ghost if they felt the role would suit them.

"From the day I left school I was doing any kind of freelance writing I could get, including business writing, women's magazines, fiction, the lot. The best way to start ghosting is to find someone who you think has a book in their head or their filing cabinet and then offer to write it for them and take it to publishers and agents on their behalf.
"You could start small. If, for instance, you know of someone who runs a particularly successful local garden centre you could suggest that they do a book on plant care. You then produce a synopsis, explaining what would be in the book and why they would be a good person to write it, (and maybe persuade them to agree to sell the book through their outlets). You then head off to the publishers with it. If that doesn't work there is always the possibility of self-publishing it for them.
"Once you have one or two books under your belt you can approach publishers and agents and tell them that you are a ghost and that you are looking for commissions.
"It will not happen overnight, but with perseverance it will eventually work.You could also start out by offering your services as an editor and then gradually take on bigger and bigger briefs until you are eventually writing the entire books.

"To be a successful ghost you need to be totally non-confrontational, endlessly patient and willing to get no glory at all. Imagine how you would behave if you were Barack Obama's speech writer; most of the same rules would apply."
ME: You are well known as being incredibly proactive on the marketing and platform-building front  -  is this something you happened to be good at or did you have to work at it at first? What were you starting points or skills / advantages that you built on?


"I find marketing very interesting, (I used to write a lot for publications like Marketing Week).

"Imagine you are a skilled carpenter. You decide to spend a year creating a truly wonderful piece of furniture, an absolute masterpiece. All through the year you are starving, begging and borrowing just to stay alive long enough to finish your masterpiece. At the end of the year you are thousands of pounds in debt, which means you are going to have to charge a fortune for this one piece in order to recoup your finances. What if no one wants to pay that much? What if no one wants to buy it at all?

"So many writers take exactly that approach to their careers. They produce the beautiful novel that they want to write, and then wonder why no one else wants to pay them the going rate for the time they have invested.

"Supposing that you, the carpenter, took a different approach. Suppose you went round asking people what they would like you to do for them? Would they like a coffee table that will take you just a few days to make? How about a new front door, or a garden bench? Maybe they would like a complete fitted kitchen? That is marketing, as opposed to selling, and it is exactly the same approach that authors need to take if they want to make a living from their craft.
"Ask the publishers, (or anyone else you can think of), what they need and then provide it for them.
"Once you have a regular income you can then schedule in a bit of time to create your beloved masterpiece, and you will at least have made a few potential contacts when the time comes to try to sell it."
ME: And now you are writing your own fiction. The Overnight Fame of Steffi McBride was published in 2008 and the Fabulous Dreams of Maggie de Beer is out early in 2010. Tell us how this came about  -  something you'd wanted to do for a long time or something that came to you one day? And tell us what sort of a writing journey that has been.

"Every so often over the years I have had an idea for a novel which I have found irresistible.
"My current obsession is with instant fame. I have worked a lot with celebrities and with people connected to television shows like Big Brother, The X-Factor, EastEnders and Richard and Judy. I also have a daughter who is an actress. I find the whole idea of mass-media celebrity fascinating.
"I also wanted to write something that the actress daughter, (Olivia Grodd), could use as a showcase on YouTube. So I created the character of Steffi McBride, a young girl who almost accidentally becomes the nation's darling in a soap opera, only to have her life ripped apart by media revelations about her past.
"One of the revelations is that her mother is not who she thinks she is. Her real mother, (Maggie de Beer), is a show girl/vice girl/ page three girl from the seventies who sold her soul, (and gave up her child), in exchange for a shot at being famous. Maggie's story consequently followed Steffi's in a prequel coming out next year.
"Olivia made the video and appeared on the cover of Steffi McBride, which garnered us a few more column inches, and her younger sister, Jess Crofts, is now appearing on the cover of the prequel. 

"A few years ago I wrote "Maisie's Amazing Maids" which was a book with a ghostwriter as the central protagonist. Because I could talk about ghosting I was able to promote the book far more widely than you usually can with fiction, (chatting to Mariella Frostrup on Radio 4, that sort of thing)."
ME: Again, you're marketing the fiction incredibly proactively  -  and using your daughter's talents along the way! How is this marketing different from what you've done before? 
"This marketing campaign has really been an extension of what I have been doing all along. The idea is always to get a book talked and written about as much as possible in order to draw it to the attention of as many people as possible in the hope that they will be tempted to buy it.
"When I am selling the concept for a ghosted book to a publisher I have to use all the same marketing techniques.
"It took me a very long time, for instance, to persuade publishers that the public would actually like to read stories about children overcoming adversity, (the sort of books that are now taken for granted and dismissed by the very grand as "misery memoirs"). Each time a new story came along I had to go the rounds yet again, sometimes with an agent, sometimes without, trying to convince publishers that my subjects had a worthwhile story to tell. The marketing process always involved writing powerful synopses/selling documents.
"Thankfully, once you have had a few number one bestsellers, people become more willing to listen."
Andrew, that was fascinating, thank you!

OK, class, let me give you my observations about what Andrew said, and then hand over to you for comments and questions.
  1. You will notice that Andrew has worked incredibly hard at all this. He has had to have not only writing talent and skills, but also determination, energy, intuition, adaptability, and (crucially) a very clever combination of confidence and yet absence of arrogance. He has learnt along the way, by listening and tuning in to what publishers want. And has in doing so carved out a very successful space in the writing world. This has not fallen into his lap.
  2. The marketing has not become less as he has had more books published  -  this is an author who (very like me) loves and values his books enough to want to put every possible effort into their success. He has not expected people to do things for him.
  3. Why did he write these novels? Because he's hugely interested in and fascinated by the topic. He used the word "irresistible". But he has also picked something which others may find irresistible too, because he's tuned into what people want. That's an essential combination and one which we'd all do well to remember.
  4. Doesn't this sound like a man who loves his job?
  5. What you don't know is how quickly, efficiently and helpfully Andrew sent in his answers to my questions. The point being: efficiency and professionalism impress. And impressing people with your efficiency and professionalism is always valuable. Not that I'm paying him anything...
  6. Don't you just love this line? "Thankfully, once you have had a few number one bestsellers, people become more willing to listen." What can I say?!
On behalf of everyone, thank you so much, Andrew, for calling by. I'm now off to add Steffi McB to my wishlist.

Questions? Comments? Or are you all off to haunt someone?

(Andrew does have a fulsome website on ghost-writing and aspects of his own work, so I ask you to visit it before asking something, as we don't want to waste his time with things he's already said.) 

Wednesday, 14 October 2009


Dear Crabbit Old Bat,
You give such good advice on your esteemed blog (bows, scrapes and touches forelock) that I wondered if you could help me? See, I am really trying my very, very best to follow all your words of wisdom (more flattery, more, more) but I still don't quite seem to have managed to get published. So, please go on my website, where you'll see I have put loads of samples of my best works, including the much-loved (by me) fantasy trilogy, The Mega-Magical World of Gloom Valley and the Invasion of the Man-Eating Night-Birds. I just wondered if you could tell me what you think and give me some advice to get me published. Go on, you know you want to! I'd be really grateful. Anyway, I know you're not really as crabbit as you seem!

Yours in anticipation,
A Fan
OK, I know I exaggerate, but only a bit. See, I've been getting a few of these emails recently. In fact, more than a few.

Of course I'm thrilled. My heart melts with a warm glow. I am touched. Especially by words like "esteemed" and "wisdom" and "Fan". And by the idea that you think I can wave a magic wand and help you.

On the other hand, I am not thrilled. There are a few reasons why I am not thrilled and why I have a minor frisson of panic and meh-ness when you (lovely) readers contact me in this way.

Reasons to say meh on receipt of such emails:

  1. I am very (very) busy
  2. I should be spending much more time on trying to earn a living. (Ask my agent).
  3. I spend hours giving free advice on my blog, which I absolutely love doing but which I kind of feel is enough at least in terms of the free part
  4. It takes a lot of time to offer individual advice
  5. And there can be a severe downside  -  especially if you didn't like my advice. It could get personal. I'm not very good with personal: it tends to keep me awake at night.
  6. Another downside is that unless we have a formal agreement at the start, you could turn round and accuse me of stealing your idea. Now, I know I wouldn't do that (I have enough of my own) but can I afford the time to explain that and get it cleared up before I read your tome?
  7. Advice that might seem to you to be easily accessible in my head, all ready to be spewed out onto the keyboard, actually takes some time to sort out and set out and check
  8. You are asking me to give professional advice for nothing. Would you expect a lawyer to do this? Or an accountant? Or a plumber? Or frankly, any self-employed person. Now I know that I'm not really crabbit but actually pathetically generous, and often say yes to things I shouldn't, but I have to draw the line, and the line is here.
In short, I have to ask myself the ruthless question, What's in it for me?

Now, there is an answer to this question which might help both you and me: next year, I plan to start offering individual advice, in the form of a professional critique service, talks and workshops. The planned name is Pen2Publication. At the moment I am thinking through the details with a partner. (While also doing my existing writing, if you're listening, o wondrous agent. And yes, that novel will get written...)

Ideas include:
  • critiques at various levels
  • individual advice on submissions
  • residential weekends / days with around 20 aspiring writers, where we focus on "how to make a publisher say yes". I'd do the weekends in partnership with another writer.
  • talks around the theme "Hurdles and Hooks  -  your road to being published"  -  I already have some events lined up for university Creative Writing MA courses, but I'll also do talks open to the public, or to existing writers' groups. (If your group might be interested, let me know).
So, what do you think? (See, there's me asking for free advice now!) I'm trying to assess demand and see what people would want. But it has to be secondary to my main writing work.

Meanwhile, to those of you who want to ask for individual advice, please bear in mind the downsides for me.  I can't / won't read your work for nothing  -  not even if you try to persuade me with boots, Hotel Chocolat or sparkly wine.

HOWEVER  -  if there's a small question of possibly public interest you'd like me to answer, do ask me and I'll blog about it if possible. (Email I'll do it with or without naming you, at your instruction.

It's the "please read my work and tell me what you think" that's the problem. You may think, "she's a successfulish writer so she can afford to do these things." Unfortunately, successfulish only happens if I try to be balance free stuff with paid stuff. My agent  -  who reads this blog, so I should watch what I say  -  thinks I'm writing a novel. I am. I am.

Meanwhile, I hope you're all working hard on your entries to the Hotel Chocolat Halloween competition. Flash fiction is a genuinely great opportunity to hone your writing skills and write for a public audience. And with ten prizes, the odds are good.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009


Look, I know: I'm a tart. I'm easy. Throw me chocolate and I'm yours. I don't much mind if your chocolate is shaped like ghouls or witches, little devils or a cabbage. But, taste-wise, I have my standards: it can't just be any chocolate. So, when the divinely luxurious Hotel Chocolat people offered me TEN Boo Boxes as a Halloween gift so that I could come up with a competition that combined Halloween (that's the BOO bit) with chocolate and writing, how could I refuse?

Well, to be honest and accurate, I did refuse. Look, I thought, my readers are the hot-shot writers: let them do the creating and the writing. Not me. I am too

So, here's your task:

Flash fiction. A very short story, up to 100 words, which most gorgeously, elegantly, poignantly, creatively, wittily or movingly (or any combination thereof) includes three ingredients in any proportion or combination: chocolate, fear and the written word. Any genre, any age-range. 

Deadline: midday, British time, on October 21st. That's 21st, NOT 31st...  

The method: by email  -  NOT comment box  -  with your name and address (which will only be sent to Hotel C if you're one of the winners and will not be kept by me after that) to: Please put "HALLOWEEN HOTEL CHOCOLAT COMP" in the subject line of the email.

A rule: each writer may enter up to two entries.

A point of info: each writer retains copyright, but must allow me to post any of the winning entries, duly credited, on my blog on Oct 31st.

The judgement: to be delivered by me, in consultation with a ghoulish fiend  -  sorry, I mean friend  -  in time for you to claim your Halloween chocolate prize by the appropriate date.

Dastardly proviso 1: these Halloween gift chocolates can only be sent to a UK address... SORRY! Of course, writers from other countries may enter, and nominate a UK recipient, who will no doubt be endlessly grateful. You get the glory and they get the chocolate. Tough call... [Edited to add: following Marisa's generous / devious offer, please do not nominate your intended recipient until you've been told you've won!]

Devious proviso 2: please (if you haven't already) join this blog as a follower if you possibly can  -  it's free and has no downside. It does not mean that I send you things. It helps me to know that you're out there and I'm not just whistling in the wind.

Obvious warning: follow those submission guidelines, consummate professionals that you are.

Please also comment below as normal, for example to tell me how much you will love me if you win. (I am always open to bribes, despite the interference of some US organisation which calls itself the FTC, which wants to stop such things amongst bloggers. At least I am open about my bribability.)

But, most importantly, take this as a serious writing task: ask not how much Halloween gift chocolate you might win but how beautiful your words might be.

Hang on: don't you feel sorry for me, not being able to win this scrummy prize myself? Weep not, because the gorgeous people at Hotel Chocolat have said that I deserve some Halloween chocolate too. Me! Hooray for asking and receiving!

I don't know how to spell the sound that has just come from my mouth. I am like Homer Simpson contemplating his fifth burger. I am like an oyster-lover about to prise open the juicest oyster in the Southern Seas. Or wherever oysters grow most succulently. I am in anticipatory chocolate heaven.


I love Hotel Chocolat. (Obviously). You have to try it. There's even a catalogue and home delivery and everything  -  crikey, you don't even have to get out of bed!

Write, damn it, write and dream  -  and if you're an idiot who doesn't like chocolate, do it for the glory of the writing.

And now, I must calm down. Thank you, lovely Hotel Chocolat people.

Btw, do you think there's really a Hotel Chocolat? Could I stay there? Would it be a case of "you can stay there any time you want, but you can never leave?" (And are the Eagles now going to sue me for breach of copyright or is that "fair use"? Would I care as long as I had chocolate?)


As a hilarious antidote to the info in my previous post (below) about what to expect from a publisher, do read this piece in the New Yorker. Actually, if this did happen, you should be rather grateful. This is attention of the highest order. (Thanks to various twitterers who tweeted it.)

Then, do come back here this evening for details of a chocolate + Halloween themed creative writing competition, on this blog only: a chance for you to hone your chosen writing voice / genre in a piece of flash fiction, with TEN prizes generously donated by Hotel Chocolat. Yes, Hotel Chocolat. Thank you, lovely chocolately people.

Monday, 12 October 2009


Let's get positive today. Imagine you're about to be published  -  hooray! I see the frisson of excitement rippling across your face. You can't stop grinning!

Of course, you'll grin when it happens. You may well do some leaping too, but ideally in the privacy of your garret, since an author leaping is not usually a pretty sight. But what else can and should you expect on P-Day? Specifically, what should you expect from your publishers?

This post was prompted by a question in the comments after Networks and Platforms  -  Must I? David Griffin asked about advance copies and who was responsible for these, author or publisher? That's a simplish question (answered below) but it leads to other issues about expectations. 

So, what should an author expect? That is not to say that this will always happen, but you should expect it, with details and extent depending on the nature of your book and publisher. And how useful the activity would be. (Not how much you'd love it to happen...) 

Important things to get into your head:
  1. Publishers want to sell as many copies as possible. Obviously. They have borne all the cost and they want to recoup it, quickly and fully, and more than fully. So do you. You are both on the same side. Never forget that, even in the dark moments when you wonder what the hell they're doing. (Note to lovely Walker Books: of course, I have never wondered that in your case.)
  2. That does not mean that money will be thrown around. Nor should it be. Every book has a marketing budget. That budget may be zero. A zero budget does not mean zero publicity / promotion, however. Also, some things must be done regardless of marketing budget. (Advance copies being one).
  3. The budget and effort expended will relate to a judgement about how useful that spend will be for THIS book. It will be pointless to chuck masses of dosh at a TV campaign which your potential readers won't see. Yes, it will make you feel glorious, but that feeling will soon fade when you sell no books and your publisher makes a loss and stops liking you. 
  4. You must work with your publisher. Take a look at some of the stuff I did around the publication of Deathwatch in June this year. (There are also two posts above and one below that one, but that gives you a reasonable idea.) I worked my butt off, broke a world record, made two videos (myself, at zero cost, though using a fab screensaver which my publishers made in-house), sold loads of copies and generated goodwill. I nearly died. Everyone was happy because we squeezed every ounce of value from the budget and we worked together perfectly. This is not always easy  -  it requires tact and respect, on both sides. I am lucky. But I worked. Boy, did I work ... Chocolate supplies in Scotland dipped that month.
  5. You don't ask what the budget IS  -  you ask what it will allow. "Do we have a budget for...?" And if we don't, go back in your box and think of something cheaper. Cheaper is not less good.
  6. Marketing costs money, but publicity and promotion need not. Clever people don't need lots of money to sell something. So, don't measure your potential success by the size of your marketing budget.
 What's the minimum you should expect  -  and ask for if it doesn't seem to be there?
  1. A structured plan. My main publisher, Walker Books, sends every author, at least six months before publication, an outline of what will happen at each stage. One of these stages allows the author to meet the marketing team. (If it's a very "small" book, say part of a publisher series rather than an author series or stand-alone, this won't happen. But you should still be able to be involved.) If you have an agent, make sure he/she is there at the meeting and has seen the plan.
  2. A request from your publisher for you to provide relevant info  -  list of contacts, ideas, things you feel happy doing (eg talks)
  3. Six-three months before pub date, your publisher should decide the details of promotional activity. Eg, lists of newspapers, magazines, events. At this point, contribute your ideas (tactfully ...)
  4. The publisher will provide, at their cost, a certain number of copies of the book to send to potential reviewers and booksellers. These will be Advance Reader Copies (ARCs). They may be "proof" copies  -  ie not the real version but a cheaper one, usually with a plainer cover, and not proof-read. But proof copies are expensive and don't always cover their costs  -  if yours is a book that hard-pressed reviewers are unlikely to choose to read, for example. So, publishers may produce a version more like an MS (so, a pile of A4 sheets vaguely bound  -  I hate this. I have done a lot of reviewing for the Guardian newspaper and I only once chose to review a book sent in this format  -  it's just not compelling when you've got 200 beautiful books to choose from). Or the publisher may simply order lots of real copies of the book extra early  -  my publishers ordered hundreds about 6 weeks before publication. These advance copies can be used when appropriate and costs tailored to demand. As to how many  -  it depends how many they can use. A hundred to a thousand. In answer to David J Griffin's question about this, wonderful Lynn Price helpfully replied with the US perspective:

    David, any trade publisher - small fry like me, or large like Random House - sends out about 100 - 200 ARCs (Advance Reader Copy) to reviewers, bookstore managers, and media.

    Any publisher over here in the US who says the author must do this is more than likely a Print On Demand company. ARCs are an upfront expense that PODs can't risk because trade magazines won't review them.
    NB: What you should absolutely NOT expect is your publisher to ask how many copies you plan to buy  -  see the excellent recent Writer Beware post here. You may buy them at author discount, and you may give those away, but a) you should never be encouraged to and b) you should never, ever, ever, be asked to sell them. That is not your job (though, by agreement with your publishers, you may choose to. I think I need to do another post about selling author copies  -  it's not simple...).

  5. The publisher will send them out, at their cost. Whatever the size of your publisher, it's worth asking to see the list of who has received advances. And add to it  -  you give the publisher the names, they send them out. Obviously, you can't just use this to get your friends free copies  -  this is all solely to generate sales. Remember that. Be canny.
  6. The publisher should work hard to get you any relevant media coverage. But be realistic  -  is your book important enough as a story? It's not enough that you've written a great book  -  what's the story behind it? An example I've used (often...) is the story of a school helping me promote or write a book. Think about it: AUTHOR WRITES BOOK is not a news story, but AUTHOR TRUSTS KIDS WITH BOOK LAUNCH is. 
  7. You should also expect inclusion in the publisher catalogue for that season/month/whatever.
  8. And a press release to go out with review copies. (I strongly recommend that you ask, very tactfully, to see this and perhaps have some input. You are unlikely to be shown it otherwise, and it will have been written by someone who very possibly hasn't read the book... I have seen some terrible, truly terrible press releases. (Not you, lovely Walker Books  -  don't be paranoid!)
  9. Events  -  again, this will depend on your book and you, but the publisher should make an effort to get some "gigs". Any help you can give will be crucial. Events will probably be local, at first. Your publisher should, where possible, pay travel expenses for these peri-publicational events  -  but you will need to ask. And they may not be able to, or offer you fewer gigs if they see you'll need expenses  -  so, think about what you can do yourself at minimum cost. At the very least, they should organise all the book-selling (including supply) at these events.
Things you can't take for granted but could discuss:
  1. Marketing materials  -  expensive and not always well-used. Posters, for example  -  where are you going to put them? Children's and teenage authors like me can use posters very well, as schools love to paper decaying library walls with them. But other authors may not use them well. Bookmarks  -  again, expensive and not always going to generate sales. (Consider getting your own postcards or small cards / stickers made with a cheap on-line company such as vistaprint.)
  2. A launch party? Not necessarily. Again, they don't usually convert into enough sales, though they make authors happy. You'd be surprised how many launches are organised by the author, though with support from the publisher. Organise it yourself and ask for a publisher contribution.
In your dreams:
  1. Flowers, sparkly wine, chocolate? Dream on! Of course this sometimes happens. A card signed by the whole team is one of the loveliest things to get on pub day, and is quite normal. But don't be offended if it doesn't happen.
  2. Anything expensive if it's not likely to translate into sufficient sales. Be realistic. It may sound reasonable to say, "But the more you do, the more books we'll sell." Yes, but a) that doesn't mean that the more money you spend the more likely you are to recoup costs and b) the publisher has other authors and other books and you are not the only fish in the sea.
(For your interest, but at a slight tangent, blogger and author, Caroline Dunford, blogged here at the weekend about her very recent launch and publication. It is an eye-opener for those of you who are dreaming of your launch and signing! A great insight into the mind and emotions of each of us in this position.)

Also, do take a look at this vg post from the BookEnds literary agency. 

In short: all writers have to promote their work, and knowing what to expect from publishers is the important first step. It's not just debut writers: if you want to know how enormously successful writer, Andrew Crofts, goes about working with his publishers to sell as many books as possible, come back on Oct 16th, because I have an interview with him. Andrew is the UK's top ghost-writer, with many huge best-sellers  -  being known at all as a ghost-writer speaks volumes for his success on the platform-building front! He contacted me recently and introduced himself. By chance, I'd been wanting to do a post about ghost-writing (not something I know about, though it fascinates me) and wouldn't have had the courage to contact him, but there he was, contacting me and saying nice things (fortunately). In his interview he gives fascinating advice about the business of being a writer and talks about his move from ghosting into his own fiction. If you think that getting that elusive first deal is the end of the story, mountain climbed, sigh of relief time, you're in for a surprise... 

Andrew's interview is going out on Friday 16th, 8pm UK time. Can't be earlier as I'm away doing more talks again and my train doesn't get back till then. I don't want to miss your comments and questions for Andrew. Join us there, and if you have any questions, he's most kindly agreed to answer them ...

Saturday, 10 October 2009


We have another brave writer willing to submit herself to the rigours of a Submission Spotlight. (Apologies to others who have sent in submissions  -  I'm getting there, and promise to produce a few more soon.) Her name is Lynn Michell and she is looking forward to your feedback to help her on her way.

If you haven't commented on one of these before, please look under "Submissions Spotlights" in the labels column and see what sort of commenting we expect. The standard of commenting is high, and we want constructive, considered points. Most of you are not professional editors or agents, but readers, and readers' reactions are very important. But "professional" readers do have a different eye and look for different things  -  therefore, please say whether you do have a professional role or not. (I know some publishers read this blog and like to remain in disguise  -  no problem if so!) Also, if this submission is not a genre you normally read, please say  -  then the writer knows how to interpret your views.

Comments must be constructive, whether positive or negative. You may make broad, general points, or focus on tiny details. Please be respectful and consider the writer's feelings  -  but consider even more how you can help her move towards publication.

Note that there was a specific brief which was different from a "normal" submission: to write a covering letter and the first 500 words. Also, this is a UK-style covering letter, rather than a US-style query which would not be accompanied by any material and would therefore be longer. HOWEVER, on this occasion, I have also included the synopsis, because the author kindly sent* me one, and because I think it is worth your looking at. (*And don't criticise her for not following the brief  -  this came about slightly differently!)

Ignore any formatting issues  -  this was a function of me transferring the text to blogger. Assume we're looking at double-spaced type.

Dear Nicola Morgan
White Lies  -  by  -  Lynn Michell

I saw on your website that you are calling for synopses and outlines to critique.  I very much appreciate this opportunity to send you the synopsis of my debut novel White Lies which begins in Liverpool as the second world war breaks out and moves to Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s. It is a slow burning love story which is played out against the backdrop of the desperate, bloody attacks on white colonials by the land-hungry and dispossessed Kikuyu tribes of Kenya.

White Lies was short-listed as a work in preparation for Edinburgh's Robert Louis Stevenson Award in 2007 and again as a finished novel by an emerging writer in 2008. It is literary fiction and roughly 90,000 words.

I have published six non-fiction books with HarperCollins, Longman and The Women's Press and have won a number of prizes for short stories. This is my first novel.

I do hope that you want to read more.

Yours sincerely

Lynn Michell

(500 word sample)

White Lies
Chapter One

From far away they look like a rock group posing for a publicity shoot, neither together nor apart, facing all ways. A tall middle-aged man with hair as wild as the wind. A woman holding the arm of an old man; a second fairer woman leaning in on his other side. A beautiful, skinny youth with a shaved head who remains a little apart, perhaps because he is young and feels things keenly. And a young man in his twenties holding the cardboard box as carefully as if he were carrying a child. Close to though, it is obvious that they are not posing at all. This is for real.

It was late afternoon when the two cars pulled up in the car park above the beach. Like other beaches on the stretch of English coastline between Folkestone and Dover, it was a chill grey, bleak and disheartening. In the front seat Eve's son Alex held a square cardboard box on his knee. It was Alex who had sat with his grandfather round the clock until the others had raced to him from motor-ways and airports. Alex who always wore jeans had bought a new black suit and a black tie and black shoes because he knew appearance meant a lot to his grandfather.

The old soldier, so much older now than five days ago, stumbled when he set foot on the cobbled stones above the beach. Eve grabbed him and held him steady as they squeezed their way two abreast down the pedestrian path which was wide enough only for one. A wet wind soaked their faces and stormy clouds whipped across the sky. Each one was thinking, How do I do this? I have never done this before.

It is hard enough to walk across shifting stacks of stones when fit and young, but how to manage when you are eighty-nine and giddy with grief? The old man comes to a halt too far from the sea and rests for a moment, wanting to shake off the two women who prop him up, wishing to be alone with his thoughts. Earlier that afternoon, walking behind the coffin over the strip of red carpet, he had reached out his hand to touch the wood and said, I want to see her again, and Eve had whispered, Father, you can't. It's too late now.

We are dressed inappropriately, thinks Eve. Here we are in our funeral finery when we need our wellies and waterproofs and hats. Glancing at her husband Max, she worries that the men will be frozen in their thin white shirts and suits. They gather together to wait for a lull but the sea has never-ending reserves of energy while they are drained of theirs. It scores each time it rushes up to froth around their ankles and shoes.


‘By 1950, Kenya was on the verge of one of the bloodiest and most protracted wars of decolonisation fought in Britain’s twentieth century empire.’  Britain’s Gulag. P 28.

White Lies is about different kinds of war and different kinds of loving.  It explores the fragility and partiality of memory, the political and personal interpretation of history, and our need to re-write the past so that it does not jar with the stories we tell ourselves.

An army family is posted to Nairobi in 1952.  The Mau Mau rebellion, currently in the news again, is both central and peripheral to the different family members who live through the Emergency.  Looking back, the old soldier reflects on the differences between the conventional warfare of the second world war and the hit-and-run tactics of an invisible, unreadable enemy.  His is the accepted colonial account. He experiences military action against the Mau Mau as dutiful service and personal fulfilment. His wife Mary’s story of the same period comes to light only after her death.  While her husband finds satisfaction in being a leader of men, she falls in love with an Intelligence officer who understands Kenya’s history, sympathises with the country’s dispossessed tribes, and shows Mary a kind of loving she has never before experienced.  While their father is out on armed patrol and their mother is keeping trysts with her lover, their two little girls recount fragments of their time in Nairobi as well as earlier memories of their safe days with their grandparents in a Dorset village. Their ghost-like voices break into the adult narrative, recalling images remembered with wide-eyed innocence.

This is a slow-burning love story set against a political backdrop. The plot twists and turns, gaining momentum, towards its unexpected ending.


When Mary Dell dies there is no-one left to mourn her except her husband, David, her two daughters, Eve and Clara, and their sons, yet amongst the flowers is a wreath from someone called Ann.  Their father, giddy with grief, remains silent on the subject.  When they clear their mother's room, Eve and Clara find a shoe-box of papers which Clara offers to take home.

Unable to look after himself, David Dell moves close to Eve.  While as a child Eve found security in her father, now their roles are reversed as the old man leans on his daughter. While the present is a challenge, the past is vivid and sharp.  He tells Eve his stories, over and over, until one day she suggests he writes his memoirs.  And so they begin, David talking and Eve typing.  Where do you want to start? Eve asks.  Nairobi, he replies without hesitation. 

Part way through his story David stuns Eve by telling her that something terrible happened to Mary one night when he was out on patrol.  Too upset to continue, he walks out leaving Eve without further explanation. Why does she not remember?  Nor Clara?  They recall nights of fear locked in their bedroom while their mother barricaded herself in her room with a loaded revolver.  But something worse?

While her father is talking, Eve recaptures images from the past and in remembering, questions his version of events, both the public and the private. Sometimes she interrupts him with fragments of her own story.

In London, Clara is caught up in the terrorist bombings of July 2005.  Reminded of Nairobi and curious to know how her mother coped with a similar kind of fear, she opens the shoe-box of papers. There is a diary and a letter, recently dated, to Ann. 

Now we hear Mary's story of her courtship and marriage, her war years followed by stultifying village life, and her time in Nairobi. In the background, colonials and Kikuyu are killing one another and David is out on patrol risking his life but Mary is lost in a passionate relationship that dominates the present and shapes the future.

David turns up on Eve’s doorstep one day to finish his memoir and to write about what happened to Mary one night in Nairobi. As Eve types, she discovers that her father's and her mother's accounts are different and irreconcilable. 

A middle-aged woman boards a plane to Nairobi to trace her past and find her roots.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009


Here begins an occasional series of short posts on Myths about Writing. The first one concerns a serious and oft-expressed misconception amongst writers when sending a submission to an agent or publisher.

MYTH 1: It doesn't matter if it's not perfect because an editor will want to suggest changes anyway and a copy-editor will pick up any minor errors. Oh, AND there'll be a proof-reader.

Both bits in blue are true; the bit in red is the mythical conclusion. I regret that nowadays the green bit may not be true either. Not using a proof-reader is a modern cost-cutting exercise and a very bad idea, in my view. Authors beware.

Let me tell you very briefly what those three people do, before explaining my main point.

AN EDITOR will make general comments and argue for changes relating mostly to fairly major things. For example:
  • the pace  -  too fast here or too slow there. Here's a post I did on pace.
  • voice slippages  -  see my post here for a lesson on voice control for authors
  • characterisation issues
  • plot structure, believability and consistency  -  things that don't ring true or don't work
  • many other things she/he feels prevent your story being as strong as it could be
  • smaller things that she/he happens to notice (including all those on the copy-ed's list below), but the editor is not required to pick up small errors when a copy-editor and/or proof-reader will be coming along afterwards
A COPY-EDITOR comes along once you and the editor have agreed all the changes, and looks for smaller problems such as:
  • continuity errors  -  eg contradictory clothes / weather / personality traits / statements that you've made
  • other inconsistencies and glitches
  • odd / wrong usages of words
  • sentences that would be better rephrased
  • punctuation, spelling, grammatical errors and typos that the editor had not mentioned
The copy-editor usually doesn't have direct contact with you, but is instructed by the editor. The editor looks at the copy-edits first, then passes them to you with comments; you go through them and make such changes as you agree with, and then pass them back to the editor.

(Some publishers, particularly smaller ones, may not use a copy-editor but go straight to proof-reading. If, however, there is only an editor, with no recourse to either copy-editing or proof-reading, I'd be worried. Then it's down to the author to have the eagle-eye.)

A PROOF-READER is the final reader, working after the book has been type-set (because new errors can creep in during type-setting) and looking for:
  • anything at all that the editor, copy-editor and author have missed
  • any new errors that have crept in, however small
  • errors of layout, such as incomplete lines, extra spaces, widows and orphans, instances where a paragraph is broken in an unattractive place when a page ends (the copy-ed may also have spotted these, though things change after copy-edits have been inserted)
  • inconsistencies of house-style  -  eg single or double quote marks, en- vs em-dashes
I can understand that you might be thinking, "So, if they do all this, it doesn't matter if I submit my work to an editor or agent with a few errors in. In fact, isn't it a waste of time on my part to bother with such details at this stage?"



Here are a few reasons why:
  • while all these editing experts will bend over backwards to work with an author who is already with the publisher, they won't wish to do so for a complete unknown. There is good reason for this: they know that their existing author will deliver. For example, my editor knows exactly what she will get from me when she suggests changes: an intelligent response, a listening ear, a professional reaction. She knows [I like to think] that I am worth making effort for. But my editor does not know any of that about you  -  you might respond with crappiness or a blank look. You might fail to make the required changes because you may have made the errors in the first place through uselessness rather than oversight. Sorry, but that's how it is. Thing is, I and other published authors can get away with things that you can't.
  • the editor does not actually make the changes: you do. The editor simply points out the problems. This means that you have to be good enough to understand exactly what is being asked and why. Again, the editor doesn't know this about you yet.
  • if you send in a document full of glaring errors, this tells them that you are at best lazy and careless and at worst not a good writer. This is very different from sending in something that is beautifully written and structured, and perfectly laid out and punctuated (etc) but has a few things the editor would like you to do differently. If you send in the latter, the editor will want to work with you to perfect it; if the former, not.
  • in short, you have not proved yourself worth investing in  -  so why should a publishing company risk a lot of time and money editing you to hell and back?
  • first impressions count.  If in the first few pages you have even a couple of errors that indicate lack of brilliance of language, this may be enough to stop the agent or publisher reading on.
  • brilliance does shine through errors, yes, and allowances can therefore be made. But think of this as an equation: the more errors and problems you reveal to your potential editor, the more stunningly brilliant your book must be in order to capture her confidence. Of course, you believe your book is stunningly brilliant, and you could be right. However, if you are so professional and determined to succeed, do you not want to show your best work to your potential backer? Because that's another thing an editor does: backs you and your writing, not just now but throughout your career with that publisher. And sometimes for longer  -  my first editor moved to a different publisher, and I moved with her. [Funnily, she's an old bat too. The attraction of bats, I think you call it.] 
  • we are in a recession which is hitting publishing and authors hard  -  this means you have to raise your game higher; although perfection is unachievable, it should be aimed at more now than ever. That is a Good Thing. Published authors are also finding we have to raise our game in first drafts, too  -  some publishers are taking any chance to pull out of contracts and turn us down. Gah, it's a scary world out there  -  arm yourselves with the Shield of Stupendousness.
In short, do not contemplate offering your work to an agent or editor if you think you could make it better.

However, there's a caveat: it is possible to get so hung up on perfection that you never have the courage to send the damned MS. All I will say is that if you don't send it, you won't get published. So, aim for perfection, work hard to achieve it, but at some point make the decision that you have done the absolute best you can.

Then send it.

From that point, do not look at it again. Leave it and get writing your next book. You must not look at your first one again until a lovely editor wants you to make some little changes, which you will be absolutely thrilled to do...

I am going to blog soon about how to be edited and enjoy it. Most authors are only too happy with the idea of someone helping sort out their weaknesses, but a) a few are strangely reluctant to admit that they need it and b) even those who want it are often not sure how to deal with it when it happens.