Monday, 30 November 2009


I know I seem to be here but I am in fact away. I am in London researching a novel. This involves pacing around and absorbing the smells and the feel of the air on my skin. In my novel, I am unlikely to tell you the smells and the feel of the air on my skin but I need to know them. Ideas will come, characters will begin to speak, the story will grow legs. Well, that's the plan. Either that or I'll end up having coffee with friends and shopping in Liberty's. 

Meanwhile, I have a present for you if you have a UK address or would like to nominate a UK resident to receive it instead of you. I will send a copy of Carole Blake's book, From Pitch to Publication: Everything You Need to Know to Get Your Novel Published, to a randomly chosen person out of those who comment below. [Unless your comment is rude, in which case you will be disqualified.]

Carole Blake, of course, is a leading literary agent, director of the Blake Friedmann agency, a very good person to have as your agent (no, she's not mine, in case you're wondering, but then I'm lucky enough to have another very good person as my agent) and a very bad person to sent a dud submission to or to pester inappropriately by waving an MS in front of her face. She wears great shoes. The only thing I can find to condemn in her is that she doesn't like chocolate much. This is a bit weird, but her book is excellent despite her having written it without the aid of our friendly cocoa bean.

If you are not lucky enough to win one, I suggest you buy it. Not only does it cover all the practicalities of preparing and sending your submission, and dealing with rejection and acceptance, but it also gives you a great insight into how and why agents and publishers think the way they do. It's also a fantastic way of learning all the business aspects of publishing. The description of what happens during a book auction is fascinating - and will, in one fell chapter, stop you wondering exactly how agents help authors in ways in which most of us simply cannot help ourselves. Carole's agency, [at the time of her writing the book], deals with commercial fiction and she gives great insights into what makes a book sell. Too many authors assume a book will sell just because they think it's brilliant; too few actually go to the trouble of working out why anyone would want it to be one of the books they might choose to read that year, out of all the thousands and thousands to choose from. From Pitch to Publication will get you thinking about this. And no, I haven't been sent a free copy, in case you're wondering. I have my very own, bought with my very own pennies, and I will buy another for the lucky winner  -  you wouldn't want mine as it's all thumbed and has a few flakes of chocolate on page 84.

This book is, of course, not to be confused with Pen2Publication, which is a completely different kettle of trout. Luckily, Carole's book and my consultancy are not in competition, otherwise we could have seen stilettos at dawn. I would have won, naturally, because she's a softie and I'm crabbit.

Go comment. I'll be back to check that you've been suitably sycophantic, because there's really no such thing as randomness, according to mathematicians. They'd better be right, because I've just written a book about it...


Saturday, 28 November 2009


I'm not an expert on short stories and I don't believe in pontificating about things I'm not an expert in. So, I'm calling in a proper expert and directing you over to her blog, where she's dissecting a story by a talented contemporary short story writer.

Yes, the thoughtful, cerebral and knowledgeable Sally Zigmond has used Vanessa Gebbie's Words from a Glass Bubble as an exemplar for some rules of short story-writing.

What are you waiting for? Off you go to Sally's post here, and then you can can follow her short series of lessons.

Then, if you are inspired [as I have just been] you can buy Vanessa's eponymous short story collection, ideally from the publisher's website  -  Salt Publishing.

Thing is, one of the most important things an aspiring writer must do is to read the work of others who are being successfully published in their desired genre. And I mean published now, not ten years ago. But it's not enough just to read: you have to read critically, analytically; you have to read like a writer, not only a reader.

I said aspiring writers should do this but in fact we should all do it. If you don't read the stuff that's being published by your contemporaries, how can you hold your head up as a writer? You're a hobbyist, not a professional, and you don't deserve publication, in my opinion. I don't know a single writer who can't talk passionately about the books in his or her field; but I have spoken to many unpublished writers who can't answer the question, "So, what contemporary writers do you admire?"

I recently asked an aspiring YA author what YA fiction she most admired. "Harry Potter," she answered. I almost dislocated my jaw.
[For the avoidance of doubt, the problem with this answer, as anyone claiming to be writing for teenagers/YA readers should know, is that the Harry Potter books are not YA. Technically they are pitched at the 9-12 range, though, of course, like very many books, they appeal to different ages as well. The answer sounds alarm bells. It tells me that the writer is not properly attuned to the age group he/she intends to write for. My reaction to the answer says absolutely nothing about my admiration for the story-telling skills of JKR, which are extensive and impressive, in my view. The post was not about whether any particular popular author was any good, but about a) short story writing and b) the importance of writers reading within their genre, something which I am going to post about properly very soon. As you know, I was away when the post went out and was very limited in my ability to comment and was completely unable to write another post. I am now going away again, having been in the house about two hours...]

Wednesday, 25 November 2009


'Tis the season for some of us to be thinking about Christmas. 'Tis also the season in which a few years ago I had a bit of an issue with Oxfam. Now, I know that Oxfam does a great job. Obviously. Thing is, they made a Big Mistake and so now I choose to support other charities that help in just the same way.

So, obviously you want to know a) why and b) what the hell it's got to do with books and writing.

Well, what happened was that I bought a goat. As you do. One of those goats that helps (I hope) familes who have horribly little in places in the world that even my writerly imagination finds it hard to handle. So far so good.

Then Oxfam wrote to thank me. Which I wish they hadn't done because a) I didn't need thanks and would rather they'd spent their [my] money on helping people and b) that's when they made their Big Mistake.

OK, I forget the exact words of the beginning of their letter. But it was something like, "Congratulations for not choosing a boring present such as..." - wait for it  -  arghhh -  "a book token." NO! How is a book token boring? A book token allows the recipient to enter any world of his choice, to have his mind opened, heart inspired, soul thrilled, world changed. And I thought that Oxfam, which is supposed to see education as a key to surviving and thriving in this unfair world, viewed books as the key to that key. Books, although hugely pleasurable, and even mainly pleasurable, are much more than that.

For Oxfam to think that the possibility of choosing a book was boring was absolutely enough to stop me giving them a penny ever again. Sorry. Someone else can have my penny and I hope it ends up in the same place, doing the same job, but not through the hands of someone who thinks that books are boring. I realise I am over-reacting and of course I absolutely hope that Oxfam continues to thrive in its excellent work, but I have to make choices about whom to support and it is on such things that my choices hang.

Now, this brings me to my original point: 'tis the season for some of us to be thinking about Christmas. And my Christmas wish is that we should all buy books for as many people as possible. For everyone from babies to retired people, books offer lifelines and life changes. They are humanity personified. They can save the world. I have been lecturing about this to librarians, after reading some fascinating neuro-stuff about what fiction does to the brain, the persona, the person. I could explain [at length] about this, but you'll be glad to know that I won't. If you're interested, go to the On Fiction blog, written by neurosciency people who love fiction, and click on Academic Journals in the links on the right. Most especially, find this amazing and mind-widening article  -  but brace yourself for a serious title: "Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds." It will make you want to prescribe fiction to everyone. Or inject it forcibly into their veins. Seriously. Read it. If you click on the Academic Journals link, you'll find the downloadable pdf file. (Don't forget to come back).

But, forget my lectures. [HOORAY!] What I'd like is for you to start inspiring each other with books to buy for friends and loved ones at Christmas or any other time of the year, by putting your recommendations in the comments beneath this post.

The only rule is that you can't recommend something that someone else has already recommended. Just give us title, author, who would like it and briefly why. Recommend up to five. Doesn't matter if they were published this year or not.

Me first, me, me, me first!

  • For women  -  The Device, The Devil and Me by Stephanie Taylor  -  and please buy it from The Linen Press website  -  an emotional rollercoaster, a raw and honest look at mothers, daughters, loss and love. And, I should warn you, cancer. I was so gripped that I read it in two sittings.
  • For men or women who love lit fic but also quite like it when it's short and has a bit of interesting history attached to it  -  The Falconer by Alice Thomas. Again, if you could buy it from the independent publisher's website, Two Ravens Press, that would be fab. AND they offer discounts. Hooray  -  independent, fabby AND discounty. I am reading it at the moment and it's goooood. Strange, ethereal, but good.
  • For young people over 11  -  The Witching Hour by Elizabeth Laird - a poignant look at life during the gruesome religious hatred of the Killing Times.
  • For anyone who loves short stories of the absolute classiest order  -  a choice (you could buy both...): The White Road by Tania Hershman or (and???) Words from a Glass Bubble by Vanessa Gebbie. (Buy both from Salt Publishing).
Over to you: get recommending please. Books change lives. This Christmas, if you love someone, buy them a book. Or a book token. Boring? Pah!

Monday, 23 November 2009


See, I haven't deserted you. I know that Pen2Publication launches today and you might think I should be drowning in virtual champagne, but a) virtual champagne has never rocked my soul and b) I take my blogging duties way too seriously for that. As you can see from this picture.

Sorry about that. A decadent scene, but entirely false, of course.


Let's talk about trust. And experts. And opinions. And trusting experts' opinions.

I've been thinking about this a lot, because when I have my Pen2Publication hat on it matters to me very much that anyone reading my judgement on their work will know how to accept my words, even if they don't like them. Will they believe they're going to trust me because they're expecting me to say how brilliant their work is, and then when I imply that it's verging on the mildly crappy, will they say, "Pah! So much for her stupid advice! Anyway, it's just an opinion. I'll ignore her."

[By the way, for clarity, I will not use the phrase "mildly crappy". I promise. I will find a much more professional way to tell you.]

But this is my problem, isn't it? Why am I wasting blog space airing my fears? Simple: because all of us have to decide whose opinion we trust. Doesn't matter whether you're paying for something, or reading this blog, or showing work to your critique group, or asking the opinion of friends, agent or editor: you have to decide whose opinion is most likely to be right. And what to do when that trusted opinion tells you what you don't want to hear.

Take me. [Not in that sense, please.] Whom do I trust? It depends what I've written. There's no point in reading a piece of literary fiction to my dog, because my dog only appreciates food. Not only, therefore, is she not sufficiently knowledgeable about lit fic to give me a valid opinion, but also she is liable to give me a dishonest or over-positive opinion because she wants me to give her more food.

So, I have to decide who might be the best person for this piece of writing. I will show work to different people depending on what the writing is. Specifically:
  • for non-fic articles for magazines, journals and newspapers  -  my husband, because he hates the idea of me exposing myself in public [not in that sense... well, yes, OK, in that sense, too] by making some silly mistake or seeming like an idiot, so his motive is to protect me.
  • for letters ranting at companies that have not treated me with the respect I deserve  -  my husband, to protect me from legal action
  • for an extract from a WiP  -  my editor if it's under contract; my agent at earlier stages (to protect me from my scary editor); whichever of my daughters (20 and 23) I think is more appropriate for the piece  -  because they all want the best for me and know what they're talking about.
  • for a potentially controversial blog piece  -  Jane Smith of How Publishing Really Works. [Though, as I write this, she's apparently sitting in a radio studio wearing 6 inch heels and leopard print leggings so I may have to knock her off the trusted list...]
There are some things to note in that list, because they appear to contradict advice I've given about not using your children's, family's or friends' opinions to judge whether your work is good enough.

First, I choose these people very very carefully, trusting their knowledge and knowing that they will be honest.

Second - and this is equally important - I have learnt how to listen to and what to take from a piece of criticism. I can now mediate the advice and filter it correctly. So, when my agent or editor [the two most trusted experts in my writing life] say something negative or suggest changes, I filter that through all the things I've learnt about my writing habits and the reactions I get from "real" readers, and I can work out whether and to what extent they're right. Because no one, however "expert", is right all the time. As a published author, I have plenty of public feedback against which to measure my writing; I'm not operating in a vacuum. Unpublished writers are very much in that vacuum. Horrible places, vaccuums  -  you can't breathe in them.

The problem for unpublished or new writers is that every piece of negative criticism feels raw, sometimes shocking, and often confusing because it contradicts that entrenched [and necessary] belief that one's work is wonderful.

So, what's the answer? If you're unpublished and so don't have the public "official" feedback, how do you know whose opinion to trust, whether from a paid-for service or a crit group, or whatever?
  1. First  -  the person must be Knowledgable and Honest. You will have to judge this very carefully and ask yourself why this person's view is worth listening to.
  2. Second  -  if you have decided that the person or group is knowledgeable and honest, you must work out how you are going to use the advice positively. This does not always mean slavishly following it but it does mean opening your heart to the possibility that they are right and that following the advice may make your book much, much better.
Talking about better, I cannot better this excellent advice from Emma Darwin writing about How to Get the Most out of an Editorial Service. She's talking about taking paid-for advice but the same applies to any other forms of advice you might get. Regard any chance to get knowledgeable and honest advice as an opportunity not to be missed  -  it's what I didn't have during my years struggling to be published.

So, choose your advisors carefully but, once you have chosen them, trust them, though not necessarily slavishly. Ask yourself: if you trusted them, why should you ignore them when you don't like the answer? Was it that you didn't really want their honesty, just their adulation?

Sunday, 22 November 2009


Tomorrow, Monday 23rd November, Pen2Publication opens its doors for business. Amazingly, I have some clients already  -  quick-footed blog-readers getting in under my radar and signing up before I'm open. I bet you're the people who sleep on the street outside Harrods before the sale begins!

Anyway, you can now visit the website  -  -  where you'll find all the information you need about what I'm doing and whether it might be something you're interested in.

I must emphasise that this will not affect the advice given on my blog at all. The blog is where I will continue to hang out, lounging around with sparkly wine in one hand, chocolate in the other, and gorgeous shoes on my feet, dishing out free advice to anyone who cares to listen.

So, how is Pen2Publication different? [Apart from the fact that you pay for it...] Well, since free public advice can only be general, it can't properly address your specific situation. It certainly can't take into account whether your writing is any good. Pen2Publication offers a range of professional services which allow you to discover important truths about your own potential for publication and help you move towards your goal. And I have some great people helping me, too.

There are, of course, no promises of publication at the end of it. I do make two promises, however:
  • When you are my client, you will receive my full attention, honesty and expertise.
  • Your writing, and therefore your chance of publication, will improve.
Something else: I'm not doing a big sales pitch for this. I've no desire to persuade anyone to sign up. It has to be entirely your choice and I will do nothing to persuade you [as one of my potential clients has discovered to her surprise]. I am here if you want me and I look forward to helping anyone who wants my help.

Hooray for low-key sales pitches!

    Saturday, 21 November 2009


    I have always believed that we should write for readers, if we want to be published. Actually, no, I haven't always believed that: I used to believe I should write for myself. But then I realised that it was this selfishness, this solipsism, this narcissism, that was stopping me becoming published for all those horrible years. Now, I have absolutely no problem marrying the twin aims of writing what I want while thinking always of the readers.

    So, it's nice to see someone else agreeing.

    This is not about selling out; it's not about diminishing our art for the cause of commercialism. I still write a literary brand of teenage fiction (for teenagers who will probably grow up loving adult literary fiction), make no compromises that I'm at all disappointed about and am still writing from the heart. But I have my eyes and ears open to my readers' reactions while I'm writing. It's just like talking to someone: if you rabbit on or wax lyrical and lose your listener, that's not communication - that's lecturing.

    So, think of your reader (whoever you want your reader to be) and you may well find yourself being published. Remember: agents and publishers are readers too.

    Wednesday, 18 November 2009


    Unpublished writers are always being advised to get an agent. You're constantly told how important it is, and how the agent must be a good agent, and how to spot crappy ones and attract wondrous ones [hooray for mine!]. I have myself waxed* lengthily about the virtues of wondrous agents.

    [For clarity: I didn't mean that I have myself waxed...]

    Frankly, you must be sick to death of hearing about the glorious importance of agents. And here's another article saying the same thing, and very rightly and persuasively, too.

    There's a problem with us banging on about this, though. In fact, there are at least two problems.

    Problem 1: It's not easy to get one.

    Problem 2: For some types of writing/writer, it's absolutely impossible, to the extent that even those of us who say agents are necessary will agree that you shouldn't bother to try. We'll shake our heads and say, "Oooooh, nooooo, an agent won't look at you, I'm afraid." And then you quite understandably want to knock our contradictory heads together.

    Before we come to solutions [hooray for solutions], it may help to understand the reasons for both these problems:
    • agents only earn a % of your income, so while you're wondering how the hell you can survive on a £3000 advance, they're wondering the same about a much smaller amount. Therefore, they can't be expected to take you on unless they've good reason to expect not just a book but a career out of you. Also, all the work they do for you won't be recompensed for ages. [You might say the same about your own writing, but that's your choice; it is also their choice.]
    • So, if you're a one-book wonder or, er, in the twilight zone of your writing life, you may not be a viable proposition. [I know this sounds harsh. I'm simply stating what has to go through an agent's mind, as opposed to a publisher's. A publisher can still be very interested in you. And in certain circumstances an agent may be, too. I'm talking about likelihoods, not certainties.]
    • And if your genre is a low-earning one (such as memoir, poetry, academic or specialist writing), again, you're simply not worth the effort. Don't take this personally: agents have to earn a  living.
    So, solutions. In other words, if you are someone who can't have an agent, by virtue of the type of writing you do, or if for some other reason you decide to do without an agent, how can you make sure you don't sign your life away and miss out on all the wonderful opportunities that good agents find for authors?

    If you're to persuade a publisher to take your book, you must see the world through their eyes, know how they think, know why they do what they do. How? Luckily, I have a few suggestions. Otherwise that would be a pretty silly point to make.
    Carole Blake's book, From Pitch to Publication. 
    Carole is a director of Blake Friedman, leading UK literary agency.

    The Writer's Handbook  -
    a must for all writers both before and after publication

    Research your rights and responsibilities with regard to things like copyright, intellectual property right, digital rights, ebooks, territories. Every writer should know about the first two; unagented writers need to learn about the others. Why? Because otherwise, when you're offered a contract (happy day!) how will you know whether it's acceptable or the best you could have?
      Fortunately, being offered a contract usually allows you at least associate membership of the Society of Authors (in the UK  -  and also, I believe, the separate organisations in NZ and Aus). This means that the experts there will look at your contract and advise you  -  free. No unagented writer should pass up this opportunity.

      Other organisations which can be useful, at least for meeting others who may know more than you, are SCBWI (The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators), PEN, Scottish Book Trust, Book Trust, Literature Training, NAWE (National Association of Writers in Education) and regional writing groups. Some of them (eg Literature Training, Book Trust and Scottish Book Trust) don't require membership and are there to offer advice to all interested people.

      There's a vast amount of advice on the internet or available from friends and acquaintances. Some of it is fantastic in the sense that it's excellent; some of it is fantastic in the sense that it's based on fantasy. The human temptation is to follow the advice that we like the sound of  -  it's called confirmation bias. We ignore what we don't like at our peril because the truth is often unpleasant or difficult. So, be ruthless in your analysis of what advice you will choose to follow.

      As you know, I am starting a literary consultancy, Pen2Publication, in order to offer professional (ie not free) advice. I am doing this because I think that if you want good individual advice you have to pay for it. I and my fellow bloggers, devoted as we are to your success, can only give general advice and can't be expected to analyse each individual situation in our own time. And good advice does need to analyse the individual writer's situation and writing. So, if you want the best advice for you, and you don't have an agent, you will need to pay for it. Unless Mother Theresa has reincarnated herself without my knowing. Mind you, I don't think she'd be the best person to advice on publication.

      This is an idea I had five minutes ago. It struck me that when I was struggling to become published, I knew no one who was trying to do the same, and certainly no one who had succeeded. So, I had no concept of what was acceptable or normal. Nowadays, it's easy to find other writers in the same position as you, or a little way ahead. The blogosphere is full of them. So, get down with the bloggers and Twitterers, find fellow writers who seem to have the same goals as you and join together to support each other and share information.

      One of the best ways to make the right contacts for this and to get advice coming your way would be to blog. I blogged about blogging here and Twittering here. I love Twitter and it's a veritable joy to see conversations going on between several of you who are there too, sharing info and support in a fabulous way.

      IN SHORT
      I suppose that all of this can best be summed up like this: get informed and get connected. It's important for all authors to do this, but for the unagented it's utterly essential.

        Thursday, 12 November 2009


        I read an interesting blog post by one of you  -  Catherine Hughes, guest blogging on the Strictly Writing blog. [Well done, Catherine!] And it got me thinking.

        Catherine's right: despite constant advice from me and many others to get your covering letter+synopsis+sample perfect before sending it to an agent or publisher, perfection is not always actually necessary. In other words,a beautiful view may still be recognisably beautiful even if seen through dirty windows. [I should know  -  I have some. I really wish the sun wouldn't shine, as it makes them worse.]

        There are plenty of stories of writers being taken on despite the fact that they have not yet produced perfection, or anything like it. My own story is a case in point: my agent took me on, then we made the book better and then she sold it. Catherine provides examples of agents who did deign to read and give good feedback even though she hadn't produced [yet] a publishable book.

        So, why am I still right as well? How can Catherine and I both be right? Why do I still urge you to clean your windows before inviting an agent or publisher to look through the glass?

        • competition and harsh reality-  every reputable agent and publisher receives many, many MSS every week. Many agents / publishers will very understandably follow their first impressions. [And I mean first, as in first paragraph.] If you have made basic errors which look like carelessness, ineptness or lack of technique, and/or they have just read something else better, yours gets dumped. You want that to happen? So, some may painstakingly read everything (I doubt it); some may have received nothing good that month; but you simply reduce your chances by not getting it right.
        • some sorts of error in covering letters matter much much less than others. Some don't matter at all. Experts make judgements that are much more subtle and powerful than simply noticing an error: they use that error to make detailed analytical judgements about you and your command of language.
        • your book has to be EVEN more brilliant underneath if the dirty windows are to be ignored. Of course, you already think your book is brilliant. And let's hope it is. But there's a Simultaneous Equation going on: for every bit of imperfection, you have to have that much more brilliance in your offering.
        • it is getting harder and harder to get certain types of book published, so the more perfect a state your book is in now, the more likely it is to be taken, because the less structural work it will require during editing, and the less of a risk an agent or publisher would be taking with you. If you think the editor will just do it all for you, read my recent post here.
        • agents and editors are looking for potential as well as an existing state of publishability. This means that yes, they may well take you on if they see huge potential shining through the grubby glass; but, for all the reasons above, you simply lower your chances of looking like a great writer if you get too many things wrong in the first place. Because, frankly, potential is what you should be honing, before they get to it.
        On the other hand, there is another way in which Catherine is right. There is, in this business as with so many others, no such thing as absolute perfection. Since there is no such thing as perfection, there's little point [you might say] in aiming for it. One person's idea of a perfect synopsis will not be another person's. [For example, independent publisher Lynn Michell's idea of a synopsis is different from some other UK publishers' ideas  -  see my blog interview with her here. She wants more of a "blurb", whereas some want more detail and chronology. Some agents are happy for multiple submissions; others are not. Some want your CV / writing background; others don't.] So, since your idea of perfection may be rejected as inadequate by someone else, you may wonder why you bother.

        In answer to that I'd say that this is not a science but an art. There are several ways of approaching a publisher or agent that work in general and tick the necessary boxes. But there are absolutely some which don't work. Showing ignorance in certain ways will get you rejected; making certain types of error will get you rejected; but most of all, not having a beautiful view through the murky windows will get you rejected.

        It's worth noting that Catherine is talking about that very important step of getting an agent / publisher to a) read and b) give encouraging feedback. The question of being accepted comes later and is different. She's right to notice that some agents and publishers will read and respond in unscary ways even if you haven't written the perfect book yet.

        But it is also very important to remember that:
        1. An expert reader [ie good agent or editor] can tell within a very few sentences / paragraphs how well you can write
        2. And whether you've written a publishable book
        3. Some of those experts readers have more time and patience than others
        4. You are trying to attract all of them, whether or not they have patience
        5. And you are trying to get published, not only to receive feedback [eg a "positive" rejection]
        6. Therefore, I strongly suggest that you work your socks off to get your whole submission package as perfect as possible
        Yes, you can make some mistakes and someone still might say nice things. You might even get published, if you have written an irrestistible book and your talent and your book's worth shine through the mistakes. But do you want to take the risk that your grubby-windowed package lands on the desk of a wonderful agent on the day she's just received a beautiful shiny one, or the day when she's feeling grumpy after too many grubby ones?

        Don't get me wrong: I'd LOVE love love it if you all got published despite doing things wrong, but I believe you'd get there quicker if you tried to do everything right. This blog is about doing our very, very best to get it all as right as possible as often as possible. Don't let me down, please!

        [Catherine  -  just to emphasise: I'm not disagreeing with you. I thought you wrote an excellent piece and I'm very grateful to you for making me think about it some more.]

        Note to all: I'm away in Dublin doing talks from Friday and not back till Sunday so excuse my lack of replying to your comments. Please comment, though  -  you usually produce some very helpful conversations between you.

        Tuesday, 10 November 2009


        One of my favourite writerly activities is editing my own work. Which is lucky, because it's also the most useful. It's also the skill that I know I've developed considerably since becoming published  -  I am much better at knowing much earlier what needs to go and how to rearrange what's left. I am becoming rather embarrassingly good at killing my babies. When they're misbehaving, anyway: obviously, sometimes my babies deserve to live. Then I dress them up and coo over them proudly (in private).

        I suspect that this self-editing skill is very hard to acquire before you've been taken on by an agent or publisher, and before you're published. And thereby hangs the horrible Catch-22 situation: you can't fully learn the art of self-editing until you've been edited, and yet you won't ever be edited until you've self-edited your own work sufficiently to be taken on by an editor.

        Don't get me wrong  -  I'm not for a moment saying I now don't need to be edited. Gosh, ask my editor if you're not sure about that. I still fail to spot things and I still need that expert outside eye. I plan to need an editor all my writing life  -  the day I think I don't need an editor is the day I become too arrogant to deserve publication.

        Perhaps at this point you are thinking, "Never mind: I've heard that the editor will do it all for me so it doesn't matter if my work's not good enough when I first send it." If so, please a) stop right there and b) read this blog post about that.)

        Perhaps at this point you are also thinking, "Pah, editing! Editing is censorship. Editing destroys the cathartic process of writing. Editing destroys the soul of my master-piece." If so, a) prepare to remain unpublished and un-read for a very long time and b) read this blog rant here.

        Somehow, if you want to be published (or to self-publish successfully) you have to learn to look hyper-critically at your own work. You have to learn to see it through your readers' eyes (if you want any readers, that is). You have to learn what they will be thinking and which aspects of that you care about. You have to learn to spot, in your own work, the moment at which you risk losing a reader. And that's the baby you have to kill.

        Luckily, instead of listening to me become crabbit on this subject, you can read this excellent post here from Editorial Ass. Please do read it because it really is excellent and there's no point in my repeating the advice. And do read the many useful comments below it. Lots of different ways to edit and some inevitable areas of disagreement -  this is not science, but art, remember. But lots of sense and practical advice. Work out what works for you, matched to your genre, as there are different requirements for each.

        Edited to add: have just seen this great post from BubbleCow: Tips on Writing a Great Second Draft.

        There's a reason why I think self-editing is so hard before you're taken on by agent or publisher: until that moment, you have to think that any negative comment is wrong. It's called cognitive dissonance: the inability to believe something that conflicts with an entrenched belief. Your entrenched belief is that your book is publishable, NOW. If an agent says, "Yes, I'll represent you because I think your book is publishable, but you'll need to change this, this and this," you think, "Hooray! they're right!" and you willingly change this, this and this. But when an agent says, "Sorry, I like lots of things about your book but it's not strong enough because of this, this and this, so I can't represent you," your inclination is to think, "Nah, just an opinion," and send it off to another agent.

        Similarly, once you're taken on, you happily allow yourself to be guided because you trust this person. You trust this person because they agree with you: that your book is publishable. So editing becomes easier, you become open-minded instead of stubborn and blind, scales fall from eyes: suddenly you can see into your work like a reader, not just a writer. And self-editing becomes easier.

        Trouble is, the actual writing doesn't...
        This may be the time to tell you that Pen2Publication is almost ready to go. I'm going to do a "soft launch" in a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, you, my lovely blog-readers, are welcome to visit the website at and have a little look. I've got some great people interested in working alongside me, too, so we'll be able to cover more genres than I could manage on my own. You can email me if you like but I'm not taking clients quite yet.

        Off to do some editing of my own work. Hooray!

        Sunday, 8 November 2009


        Thanks to reader (and writer) Dayspring MacLeod, for passing this to me for circulation. Michel Faber is one of my absolute favourite authors and I was lucky enough to meet him once. (I told that story here, and it's one I'll treasure).

        Anyway, here's the info about the free event in Edinburgh. I'm not sure if I can go but I'll try.

        Michel Faber talks to Jamie Byng

        6:30pm Tuesday 17 November 2009

        Reference Library Reading Room

        Edinburgh Central Library, George IV Bridge

        A new series of literary events at Edinburgh Central Library focusing on the important relationship between writer and publisher: the series kicks off with prize-winning, celebrated author Michel Faber and Jamie Byng, his publisher at Edinburgh-based independent, Canongate Books.

        Faber’s first book Some Rain Must Fall and Other Stories was published in 1998 by Canongate, who has published all his subsequent  seven works –  Under the Skin, The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps, The Courage Consort, The Fahrenheit Twins and Other Stories , The Apple, The Crimson Petal and the White and most recently The Fire Gospel, which was published  last year. This session will explore this successful, ongoing relationship and examine, amongst other things, the influence that author and publisher can have on one another.

        There will be a reading from Faber, an audience Q&A session and a book signing. 

        The event is FREE and complimentary drinks will be served. Booking is essential: email

        Friday, 6 November 2009


        One of the most ignorant and annoying things that a frustrated unpublished author can say to excuse constant rejection is, "Kuh, publishers  -  they're only in it for the money, of course." What? So you thought they were in it for a free passage to heaven?

        Publishing is a business. So is writing, though a weirdly unprofitable one. Yes, many of us are passionate about writing, so passionate that we do it for peanuts; and many publishers are passionate about publishing good books. But tell me why a publisher should deliberately pay to serve your passion?

        Anyway. That's quite enough crabbit for one day because I would now like to introduce you to a woman who is passionate about publishing but who is learning just how difficult it is to survive in it, let alone become rich on it.

        Her name is Lynn Michell and she is the woman behind one-woman band, The Linen Press. (Oh, for goodness' sake  -  I've just realised why Linen...) I'd like you to listen to her and then tell me that publishers are only in it for the money. The Linen Press has been running for two years and has published four books. I am not giving you Amazon links, though that would earn me some pennies  -  I'm just showing you the covers and if you'd like to buy one, or find out more, you could (I suggest) do so on the sales page of The Linen Press:

        Right, let's talk to Lynn. (And do ask her questions or make comments afterwards.)

        Me: How and why did you do this crazy thing called publishing  -  and on your own?

        I had run writing groups for many years and had often mulled over the possibility of helping women writers reach a wider audience. The final push came when 92 year old Marjorie Wilson, wearing pink and purple and with three pairs of glasses round her neck, joined our group and I discovered a rare, lyrical voice.  Her memoir of Edinburgh at the turn of the century had to be published. I set up The Linen Press and Childhood’s Hill was its first publication.
        Me: I wouldn't know where to start. How did you know or how did you learn?
        It has been a huge learning curve for me.  I naively thought publishing was about reading manuscripts and choosing beautifully crafted, thought-provoking books which would sell themselves.  My role model is The Women’s Press.  Remember those striped spines that used to have a stand of their own along with Virago?  As a new writer I worked with Kathy Gale, then MD, for seven years. She always called manuscripts ‘projects’ because she worked painstakingly with her authors until she was satisfied. That is how I work.  I take on a manuscript that shows promise but requires a lot more editing and re-drafting than any big publisher would offer. But the book world has changed and now I dare not take on a writer unless her book has a strong selling hook and unless she can help with the publicity and sales. Stephanie Taylor, author of The Devil The Device and Me, is currently giving readings, talks, and approaching shops so it’s very much a joint effort between publisher and writer.
        Me: What about the money side? People seem to think that publishers roll away with loads of profit. Can you spill the beans??
        The financial challenge for a small publisher is formidable.  Let me give you some figures:

         - One book costs £4 to produce because I do small runs of 1000. I refuse to compromise on quality and I use environmentally friendly paper and ink.

         - I charge £10 a copy

         - Amazon takes 60% and I pay £1.75 to replace the book. If you do the sums, that's £6 for Amazon, plus £1.75 p&p, and the £4 production costs, so I am actually paying Amazon £1.75 for every book they sell. If readers ordered from my website I would make £6. [Good God  -  sorry, I can't help interrupting. That's horrible.]

        - The big book stores charge me 50% mark up get a book onto one of those tables where people stop and browse. If I sell a copy, I make £1.
        Me: if you're passionate about publishing, and you're certainly not going to get rich on it, you must have clear ideas about how to direct that passion. How do you decide what to publish?
        Because we are the newest, smallest publisher on the block, I rely on my slush pile. So how do I pick the ones to read? First, despite the clear guidelines on my website, I get submissions from men, and children’s stories and chick lit and other stuff I say I do not publish. Second, I can usually tell from the introductory letter whether the accompanying chapters are worth reading. Third, I want a synopsis - not the plot chapter by chapter - but a synopsis, and if a writer does not know what a synopsis is then she too gets passed over. I am looking for writing which makes me think: ‘Ah I’m in good hands here. This person knows her craft.’
        And when I get a professional letter, a good synopsis and some engrossing, beautifully written chapters I am fired with enthusiasm.  That excitement never goes away. I love the working bond that develops between myself and my writer.  I am personally involved at every stage of the production and am as proud as the author when I hold it the book my hands. The Linen Press has integrity and passion.  I hope we survive.
        I am quite humbled by that, to be honest. It would be so much easier, wouldn't it, to focus on big-selling stuff, commercial books, the ones that tick all the boxes for flying off the shelves? But just as we don't all write those "commercially sensible" books, not all publishers publish them either. So, for all our sakes, and the sake of the future range of literature, we should support these small presses and spare a thought for the struggling publisher as well as the struggling writer.

        Now, some of you will be thinking, "Struggling writer or struggling publisher: stop being so foolish and go and earn some real money! After all, no one's forcing you to do this." Well, then where would we all be? Getting Katie Price in our Christmas stockings, that's what. Euuwwww.

        I am currently torn between buying Stephanie Taylor's book on The Linen Press website (because more money will go to author and publisher) and buying it from Waterstone's, (because then Waterstone's will be more likely to re-order it and notice it.) No, I'm not torn. Not at all. 

        Do check out Stephanie's website. And the domain name that I want to kill her for.

        I should declare a semi-interest here. I met Stephanie, Lynn's newest author, some months ago, though I had no idea she was published by Lynn who would later contact me through my blog. Stephanie is delightful and her book LOOKS stunning. I want it. And I am going to insist that neither Lynn nor Stephanie sends me a free copy, because the absolute least I can do is buy it.

        Do you have any questions or comments for Lynn? I know she'll be happy to answer them. And I could very easily get Stephanie to drop by, too.

        Good luck to both of them and very good luck to The Linen Press.

        Thursday, 5 November 2009


        Thanks to all those of you who commented on my post yesterday and threw your names in the hat to win a signed copy of Blog Baby Marsha Moore's excellent book, 24 Hours London. You helped make her launch day a happy one.

        Marsha has just emailed me to say:
        The winner is (drawn totally at random out of my empty cupcake box from last night’s celebratory cupcakes): Karen Jones Gowen!

        Thank you again, so much, for the chance to post my story on your blog. I loved all the comments – it was like almost as good as getting another pair of fuzzy pink slippers! You have wonderful readers (and yes, I realise I’ve just complimented myself, too, but anyway).

        Apologies again for taking so long to get this to you! I hope I haven’t messed your posting schedule, etc!  You can ask Karen to email me (or you) her address, and I’ll send the T-shirt and bok her way!
        So, Karen, email me ( your postal address  and I'll forward it to Marsha. And well done, lucky you!

        If anyone would like to buy it (I have one and think it's ace  -  innovative, readable, and useful), you can do so by clicking the link below. Please buy lots  -  Marsha badly needs new slippers.

        Tomorrow, I bring you an eye-opening story of life as a small publisher  -  I think it will surprise many of you. And not in a good way.

        Wednesday, 4 November 2009


        Introducing my very first Blog Baby! As I said a little while ago, I had a lovely email from a soon-to-be-for-the-first-time author, thanking me for giving good advice while she was trying to get published. Now, I'm not foolish or arrogant enough to think that I was responsible but I like to think I had at least a spectatory part in the birth and she did thank me so I must have been not entirely useless.

        Anyway, less about me and more about her. Her name is Marsha Moore and below is her story. The bits in colour are where I couldn't resist interrupting. Imagine she and I are sitting in a bar drinking celebratory sparkly stuff and I've asked her to tell me what happened but I keep butting in.

        (By the way, I have to warn you that Marsha has learnt absolutely sod all about shoes while reading my blog. Win some, lose some.)

        Talking about winning: Marsha has a free copy of 24 Hours London AND a t-shirt to give away to one lucky reader of my blog. (For readers with an address in the UK, US or Canada. For others, you could always nominate a lucky recipient.) All you have to do is make a comment below, and Marsha will randomly pick one from a metaphorical hat and that person will be the winner. The deadline will be 24 hours after this post went out  -  so 08:00 (UK time) tomorrow.

        So, here is Marsha Moore and the rather fabulous 24 Hours London. And I suppose at this point I should disclose that she's very kindly sent me a copy. But I'd already offered to host her so this cannot be described by any silly govt busy-body organisation as "undue pressure".

        Marsha says:

        "Whenever I dreamed about my publishing debut, I’d picture a pastel cover with my name written in large, whimsical font. I’d be the new (but Canadian) Sophie Kinsella of the chick-lit world, my masterpiece appearing straight at the top of the best-seller list (well, it is a fantasy after all!). I’d wear shiny Jimmy Choos (er, well you got that wrong, lady. See below, blog-readers, and be ashamed) and be on all the talk-shows. I could never have imagined that when I finally did get published, it would not be chick lit – it wouldn’t even be fiction – and I’d still be wearing my fuzzy pink (uncool) slippers in the confines of my flat. But do I care? Not a stitch!

        Two years ago, when I decided to have a go at getting published, I was dead-set on writing novels. I’d worked as a journalist for both TV and newspapers, and I found sticking to the truth quite tiresome – and very limiting! Fabricating plot-lines and making characters behave any which way I wanted seemed like heaven. So did the thought of working from home, in sloppy clothes, [and slippers] with the fridge nearby.

        The first novel I wrote was... well, I’ll call it a learning opportunity (although I can think of much worse things to call it!). I just wanted to see if I could do it; if I could sit still (and keep away from the fridge) long enough to write 80,000 words.  I had no story structure; I just went for it! [that'll learn you] After redrafting a few times – then getting around 30 rejections from UK agents – I decided it needed to be hidden away in a dark, dark corner, possibly never to see the light of day again. I was eager to  start another, anyway. [quite right] A few months later, I submitted my second attempt to American and UK agents. The responses were slightly more positive, [progress] but the end result was still the same: a big fat no.

        It was at this point – 10 pounds heavier [thing is, I suspect you got the chocolate right but you weren't doing enough pacing around; all authors pace around, silly] and slightly worried about my sanity – that I began to seek help in the blogosphere. After reading up on story structures, editing techniques and agent queries, I felt buoyed enough to try again. Enter Novel Number 3. Another 80,000 words and desperate for some feedback, I scoured the web for a writing group in my area. I came across an advert from a woman looking to start a writer’s group in Kensington, got in touch, and we met up at a nearby coffee shop.

        Here is where luck intervened: she wasn’t just another writer! She had her own publishing company and was looking for writers, particularly for non-fiction. While I wasn’t that enthusiastic about non-fiction, [no, often we're not, but it's a proper skill, easier than fiction and very very respectable, so do it, fools] I knew one thing: I really, really wanted to get published [oh hooray and hurrah, a working writer in the making] – if nothing else, to stop the pitying looks from friends and family! [thing is, now they'll pity you if you don't win the Costa Award for non-fiction or sell shedloads  -  the pitying looks never end, I'm afraid] I trotted home and wrote up a few non-fiction proposals (thanks to some great blog advice)... and several meetings later, we’d hammered out the concept of writing about all there is to do in London, hour by hour, in a guide book called 24 Hours London. I signed the contract, hardly daring to believe that I was going to be a published author! I semi-skipped down Kensington High Street (it’s hard to skip in high heels) [thank God it wasn't those slippers  -  you'd never have been signed in those] and went home to indulge in a celebratory feast of chocolate and wine with my husband. [Yay, a real writer through and through].

        That was in April, and life has been a whirlwind ever since! Luckily, although I’ve only lived in London for five years, I love to explore and I’d already done a lot of research on what to do off the tourist track. I wrote the book in just over a month. Then, the hard bit began: marketing (shudder).

        I never realised just how much marketing it takes to sell a book – or even to get bookstores to stock it! I’d just thought once you had a book deal, the book would magically appear on shelves up and down the country. I’d already begun wandering into Waterstone’s, picturing my travel guide nestled up against all the other lovely books that had made the cut. [Ah, we all did it. It's the steepest learning curve ever invented. It's where sheer determination and effort come up against the brick wall of chance.]

        I’ve learned it’s not that easy; that there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work required by publishers and authors. I’d researched the front end of the publishing process; I just wish I had learned more about what happens after you sign the contract. [Thing is, nothing can prepare you  -  it's like childbirth, without the messy bits. Though actually it can get messy, too. There was the launch where...] Still, while it’s been a steep learning curve, [told you] I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how helpful and receptive people have been. From bloggers and my fellow expat writers to the Mayor of London’s [you're name-dropping already, dahling] press office, everyone’s been very supportive.   ‘There’s no harm in asking’ has become my new mantra!

        So I’m not the new Sophie Kinsella (yet anyway – I still haven’t given up on my fiction dream! Fingers crossed for Novel Number 4). And my cover isn’t decorated with curlicues. But what the heck: I’m published! [And hooray for that!]

        A big thank-you to Nicola and all the other bloggers out there who offer advice, humour and support to every kind of writer (even those with manky pink slippers!), everywhere."[well, frankly, I'm tempted to draw the line there]
        Thank you, Marsha and good luck. By chance, I've just bought a flat in London so I'll never be stuck for things to do. [Obviously it was by chance  -  I didn't buy the flat just so I could check out the veracity of Marsha's book.] I should say, by the way, the book is a cracking idea and if there's any justice or reason it should do well. Trouble is, there is no justice or reason so you're going to have to rely on the old finger-crossing trick.

        Anyone for a free copy AND t-shirt? Comment away. Anyone want to buy one? Click here.

        Good luck Blog Baby No 1!

        Tuesday, 3 November 2009


        When my life hits its stupidly busy phases, I fall back on the useful practice of letting other people do the work. And when I came across this blog post recently, I bookmarked it for just such an occasion.

        In case you need to be convinced as to my definition of busy, I should perhaps mention that at the moment I am trying to sell a house, buy two flats, write a novel, start a new business, keep up to date with my blog, create a new website, prepare speaking engagements and have a life. One day, I will accidentally iron the dog.

        So, that post from Upstart Crow, about the lies you'll hear in workshops, is highly useful. And pointful: not only do workshop members often tell accidental falsehoodery, but so do members of your writing group and, definitely, your family. And friends. And anyone else who knows you unprofessionally.

        When you're unpublished it can be all too easy to fall back on advice and encouragement from unpublished authors. And very understandably so, because it's probably the case that only unpublished authors will read your stuff and agree to comment. I'm not saying don't ask for advice from each other; I'm not even saying don't listen to it, or don't feel nurtured by it. I am saying don't act on it unless you can corroborate it with advice from someone who is either substantially published (and preferably in the right genre or at least an appropriate genre) or else is "in the business".

        Since many / most of you are unpublished, you may now dislike me and decide never to listen to me again. Honestly, your willingness to advise each other is wonderful, and the comments on this blog reveal your general wisdom and knowledge. BUT, generally speaking you would rather have advice from an expert or someone with proven knowledge, than from someone who hasn't, wouldn't you? I only ask you to be careful and ruthlessly analytical about the advice you receive, from any source.

        As an aside, I would caution you especially not to take advice about writing for children from anyone without experience of writing for children, or of publishing that writing. Thing is, people think if they can write, they can write for children. No, no, no, no, no. It's very different and the markets are different. Whole different set of skills and knowledge.

        So, rely on your friends and family for support and chocolate; rely on the professionals for advice. Please.

        I've done a couple of posts about myths myself: here  and here. In fact, that second one reminds me that this was supposed to be the start of a series. Note to self...

        And now, excuse me, please: I need to go and see a dog about a house, or stand for Parliament or something.


        (To the eagle-eyed among you  -  no, you have not gone mad: this is a post from last week. The reason for that is complicated, but then so is my life at the moment... So, yesterdays and tomorrows are misleading because yesterday is about four days ago and tomorrow was yesterday. See, I'm really making your brains work today. You may even need to go and make some Brain Cake.)

        Yesterday, I had a sign. [Tomorrow I'm getting a sign too  -  but that's the one in front of my house saying For Sale.] Actually that's not as irrelevant as it might seem, for it was thanks to the imminent For Saleness that I was yesterday clearing out some stuff, of which I have too much, and came upon the sign which is the subject of today's lesson.

        The thing I found was a large board covered in blue material, with pieces of white card pinned to it in vague lines. In fact, perhaps you'd like to see it now happily affixed to my office wall.

        Those of you prone to serious plotting of your novels might recognise this thing. It is a storyboard. A board on which to plot stories. Or put your plumber's business card on, if you prefer. I don't normally use them [storyboards, not plumbers], which is why a) this was stuffed behind a sofa and b) I was surprised to find that it existed. But it reminded me that I did use it to help me plot my last novel  -  not the last one I had published: the last one I wrote, which is the next one that's being published, the details of which I won't burden you with because you'll hear way too much about it when the time comes.

        Look closely at the pic. That is the state the board was in when I stopped using it and stuffed it behind a sofa: not when I'd finished the book, but when I'd got the idea of the plot of my story and didn't need it any more. My "system" is unorthodox  -  I plan as I go, never in advance, and use the board more as a reminder of where I've already been, rather than where I'm going. But enough of my unorthodox systems and back to the sign.

        This was a sign of two things.
        First, it was a sign that I should be plotting out my next novel. (Which I will, I will, o wondrous agent.) Second, it was a sign that I have never done a post on structure and that I fully intended to.

        I fully intended to particularly ever since reading and bookmarking this v interesting article which appears to be about structure. Actually, it's not really  -  it's more about plotting, which is a) not the same though b) it's what my board-behind-the-sofa was all about. So, you see, it was a sign after all.

        Today, on a two-for-one basis, I am going to say something about plotting AND  structure.

        What I'm going to say about plotting is this: do whatever works for you. Or don't. As I've indicated, I don't do this plotting / planning / organised stuff. I just write and muddle along and sometimes do some backwards plotting but mainly I walk the dog and it all becomes clear. Honestly. So, can we leave it there?

        But, structure, now that's seriously important. And you can't just do what works for you. You have to do what works for the story.

        Your story must have a shape.
        That's what structure is. That article that wasn't about structure did start to talk about it  -  the three act / five act stuff. And I remember long ago attempting to be taught about short stories and learning that you had to have a conflict, then an obstacle, then another obstacle, then a bigger obstacle, and then (if you had time) a really massive obstacle which seemed insurmountable, and then a resolution. Obviously.

        Well, stuff that, frankly. Have as many obstacles as you like: obstacles create reader motivation and story-pull, not structure. That's the driving force, not the shape of the road. The shape of the road is important, but it's not as important as the driving force. [Though, as with roads, if you get a good shape, it helps the driving force.]

        Structure is shape
        I know I've had two glasses of wine this evening but I see shapes in stories. The shapes are spikes and curves. No squares. And they have direction, left to right. And though they move up and down (probably those are the obstacles getting in the way) they move upwards overall. And they always end way higher than when they started. But the last movement is downwards, after the climax, the outlet of breath, the sigh of relief.

        Below, you will see why I'm not an artist. It is my shape-based impression of three stories:

        The first one is Fleshmarket. Note the seriously major opening  -  that's the shocking surgery-without-anaesthetic scene, which causes people to faint; then we gear down (relatively) and then we gear up in stages towards the climax. And breathe out for the resolution, wiping away a tear.

        The second one is Deathwatch  -  no shocking opening, just a build-up of suspense until the big climax and, again, the release and wiping of ubiquitous tear. [I do like the odd tear at some point, preferably near the end.]

        The third one is a totally crappy structure such as I would never write. No tension, no shape, no driving force towards the end, either  -  just three boring car-chases. No wiping away of tear at the end, no outbreath of loveliness.

        Talking of breath, breathing describes another form of structure: chapter structure. 
        There are two ways of structuring your chapters, breathwise. Generally you want a mixture and the precise choice at any given moment depends on the pace and feeling you are trying to create.

        Let me explain. [Thank God for that, I hear you say. What the hell is she wittering about now?] See, we breathe in and out. [You're still with me?] We breathe in before we breathe out, not the other way round. In, out. Not out, in. We breathe in when we're expecting something, getting ready for something, including something scary or dramatic. We breathe in before speaking, before jumping into water, before eating, before screaming, before dying. We breathe out when we've done those things. We breathe out at the end of something. So, if you end a chapter on a knife-edge, before the dramatic thing has happened, it's like ending after an in-breath, in other words mid-breath   -  and the reader cannot stop there: the reader must read on, in order to breathe out, to finish. So you drag the reader along. Whereas, when you end the chapter after the thing has happened, the reader can relax.

        And the point is this [and it is the WHOLE point about writing]:
        You, the author, god in your own world, get to control the reader's breath. Because sometimes you want your reader to relax and sometimes you don't.

        How cool is that? To be able to control someone's breathing? That is power indeed.

        Another thing about shape:
        Of course, we also have to feel that the story is a rounded whole, however many spikes and peaks and troughs and prickly sharp bits there are. The whole thing has to feel complete, like an in- and out-breath, like a circle. So, beginning/middle/end, three acts of five, symphony or concerto (because music loves these shapes and structures too), it really doesn't matter  -  just as long as you know what shape you're creating and why, and as long as you are in control.

        And then there are arcs.
        You've probably heard of story arcs? Well, see, shape again. Told you. You can picture your stories like arcs, if you like. But I prefer spikes. What you could do is imagine an arc gently curving over those spikes  -  comes to the same thing: overall shape of the story, and the shape must be going upwards. A symmetrical arc would be like that boring car-chase story 3. 

        Now I guess I'd better get to work on that storyboard. Because I must remember that finding it was a sign that I am supposed to be working out a new novel. Thing is, though: a storyboard doesn't really help with shape [or mine doesn't]: that's something you just have to feel. Feel yourself draw the reader upwards; feel where the points of highest drama should come; don't peak too early; remember your breathing.

        Before you go back to your own storyboards, I thought you might like to see my desk, with the storyboard positioned above it. Until yesterday I had lovely glass shelves above my desk but, because of that For Saleness thing, I had to take them down and polyfilla the walls [and, er, cover the polyfilla with pictures]. Funny thing is, though: if I hadn't taken them down, I couldn't have put the storyboard up there. Clearly, then, a sign.

        And then I thought you might like another picture:

        Nothing to do with signs or storyboards, but very sweet. Because I'd like you to finish this lesson with an out-breath, a finishing, a resolution. But for goodness' sake, there's no need to wipe away a tear. It's just the Halloween chocolate judge, his dog, and a picnic. 

        Monday, 2 November 2009

        SUBMISSION SPOTLIGHT 8: picture book

        This is the first picture book submission I've put up for a Submission Spotlight.

         (All illustrations copyright Beverley Johnston)

        The 500 word rule doesn't apply for this, so I am showing you the covering letter, synopsis, and half* the text, along with some sample pictures. Please respect Beverley's copyright, particularly for the pictures: you may not reproduce them without her permission and she would be sensible not to give it except in certain circumstances!

        (* Beverley sent me the whole text but I have chosen to reproduce only half  -  it's enough for you to judge, especially along with the synopsis.)

        Beverley, says in her email to me: 
        "The sample cover letter below is taken from the latest one penned for an agent who deals with both fiction and non-fiction. When sending to fiction only agents I obviously omit the proposals for non-fiction books. Looking back at it I'm wondering if it appears too pushy! But then I keep reading about 'self-promotion' so I'm keen to present myself in a positive light as an author/illustrator willing to go out and about delivering workshops and talks to both adults and children."
        So, dear readers, what do you think?
        Dear xxxxxxxxxx,

        May I take this opportunity of introducing my work to you in the hope you will consider representing me as an author/illustrator. I would also like to present some additional information about myself and some ideas I have for developing a range of non-fiction children's art and craft books/sets, which I hope will convey to you my commitment to developing a career as an author/illustrator of both non-fiction and fiction books, and hence why I think you are ideally suited to represent me as my agent. 

        As a founder member of the UK Coloured Pencil Society I have already had an art technique book published, The Complete Guide to Coloured Pencil Techniques (David and Charles 2003, which has since been translated into Taiwanese), and I have now started to write and illustrate children's picture books.

        Due to the short word count I have attached a synopsis and complete manuscript for one of my picture books, Eddy's New Suit, plus 8 JPEGS depicting finished illustrations and photos taken from the fully working dummy book which is available to view.

        Eddy’s New Suit (207 words) is a lift-the-flap novelty book for the 3+ year old age group. The inspiration for this book comes from the special relationship we form as a child with a favourite teddy or soft toy. The format for the book was inspired by the wonderful Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell. I believe the book would appeal to both parents and grandparents (especially Nannies who knit) and because of the resurgence in the ‘make do and mend' philosophy, and a new generation of knitters, the book is also very current in its subject matter.

         In addition to writing The Complete Guide to Coloured Pencil Techniques, I have also written articles for The Artist, The Leisure Painter, and The Artist and Illustrator magazines. I've demonstrated at the Artist and Illustrator Show (Olympia and the Business Design Centre, Islington) and taught coloured pencil workshops at Missendon Abbey Adult Education Centre, Aylesbury. More recently (since having my children) I have delivered a coloured pencil workshop to key stage 3 and 4 children at my local school. I have also exhibited with the Society of Wildlife Artists at the Mall Galleries, London.

        Two aims of the UK Coloured Pencil Society include promoting the use of coloured pencils as a fine art medium, plus encouraging children to develop their artistic skills through the use of coloured pencils.  Coloured pencil manufacturers such as Derwent, Faber Castell and Caran D'ache etc are always open to marketing suggestions and often willing to work with artists to produce a range of educational materials, for both adults and children.

        Although in the ideas stage of development I am keen to produce a range of technique books for children. Including flowers, cars, animals (pets and wildlife), and the human form, my technique can be adapted to produce fine art or stylised pictures. Projects would be kept small to suit a child's ability and by using easy to follow step-by-step stages children would be taught how to use coloured pencils and improve their drawing skills. Examples could then be used to develop a range of workshops for schools (and to support the national curriculum would combine writing and drawing for both fiction and non-fiction projects).

        I would also love to see Eddy's New Suit be developed as an activity knitting set. I appreciate this may sound adventurous (in light of the fact it's yet to be published!) but my research has shown there is an increase in the number of people, including children, taking up knitting through the choice of books and craft kits available on the market. How many of them could resist knitting such a lovely warm jumper for such a well loved bear?!

        With regards

        Beverley Johnston

        (Available as a fully working dummy book)
        A 16 page lift the flap novelty book aimed at 3+ year olds (could also be developed as a touch/feel novelty book).


        Eddy is a favourite teddy who has been cuddled so often his fur has become patchy and worn, so his owner decides to make him a
        new suit.

        The reader lifts the flaps to discover what suit Eddy is wearing. The bubble wrap suit is, ‘too spongy and squishy’; the holly leaves suit is ‘too prickly and spiky’, and the silver foil suit ‘too shiny and crinkly’.

        None are right until the last flap, when he receives a very special woollen suit from Nanny. Which is just perfect!

        Text (first 8 pages  -  half the full book)

        Page 1-2
        Eddy the Teddy’s my favourite bear,
        but I’ve cuddled him so often his fur’s all patchy and worn,
        so I’m going to make him a brand new suit!

        Pages 3-4
        I make him a suit out of . . . cardboard and tape.
        But it’s too stiff and sticky,
        so I take it off.

        Pages 5-6
        I make him a suit out of . . . grass and string.
        But it’s too scratchy and itchy,
        so I take it off.

        Pages 7-8
        I make him a suit out of . . . feathers.
        But it’s too fluffy and tickly,
        so I take it off.

        (final four spreads supplied, not shown)

        Note from NM  -  this next pic is not the suit of feathers, but the final pic

        Comments, please, expecially from any published pic book writers out there.
        Meanwhile, the Blog Baby announcement cometh  -  be here on Nov 4th!

        Sunday, 1 November 2009

        SUBMISSION SPOTLIGHT 7: adult readers

        Another Submission Spotlight before I finally stop doing them and launch Pen2Publication. You should know the form by now  -  constructive comments, please. And remember that the synopsis is not actually included for the purposes of thise exercise, so you have to imagine that it is. Similarly, although the letter refers to "chapters", we only have 500 words here. You will see that some names have been redacted  -  this is because the author wishes to preserve their confidentiality for the purposes of this public critique.

        The author is "Susannah".
        Dear ....

        I am enclosing the opening chapters and synopsis for my 83,000 word novel, Stone Burial. Stone Burial  is the story of Georgia Fuller, and how her encounter with the apparently idyllic English countryside forces her to face up to what lies beneath – not only the bodies which lie buried under the soil but also the secrets of her own past.   The book explores how both history and our own lives are embedded in a particular place, and how forgetting can sometimes be easier than facing the truth.

        I have previously written a novel which was accepted by an agent in 2001 but did not find a publisher.  Since then, I have also attended a number of fiction writing workshops and courses in the course of working on Stone Burial.  My writing has been described as ‘very strong’ by ***** of *****, and ‘very beautiful’ by *****.  Most recently, I have been mentored by the novelist *****, who feels that the book is very much ready for submission and has described it as ‘an intelligent novel and sometimes a lyrical one, imbued with a convincing feel for English landscapes and English history,’ and I am currently working with him on my next book.

        My career to date has been as a tv producer, covering subjects as diverse as art and archaeology to interior design and gardening.  Before this, I have had a non-fiction book published (***** Fourth Estate 1992), as well as writing for the architectural magazine Blueprint.   And since then, writing – from scripts to programme proposals – has been at the heart of my work in television.

        I have submitted the novel to a small number of literary agents, but will of course inform you if I get any interest elsewhere.

        Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you.

        Yours sincerely,


        Stone Burial - first 500 words:


        The two men walked away from the field in the thick blackout night. Each kept silent, their faces shadowed, the moon now clouded and gone.  Words were no more use here. They had done what had been asked of them and it was all over.

        But had they done enough, thought the poet.  How deep did you have to bury the dead before they troubled you no more?

        The folded tarpaulin started to lift in the wind, and he clasped it closer to his chest.  Breathing in, he could smell the damp earth it had lain on, a scent of grass and dung, inert stone and everything that had once lived, flesh, fur and bone.  What else lay buried in these mute fields, he wondered.  Houses or churches, timber, brick and ashes, creatures of the hedgerows, beasts of the fields.  Then he stopped; he didn’t want to follow these thoughts any further, to come across what they had added, what they had done in the night.  Instead, he kept his eyes down, concentrating on the muddy furrows of the lane.

        Ahead of him, the artist paused for a moment, turning back to look where they had been.  Behind them, the clump of beeches and the great barrow still loomed, dark on dark, a vast shadow against the drifting clouds of the night.

        ‘I can almost see it now,’ he said, half under his breath.

        He’d always made a point of refusing the countryside, despising the nice pictures of hills and skies it brought into being.  He painted to make sense of other places, of cities and machines, of the whirling crowd caught up in their motion.  What could he take from this impassive stillness of grass and trees and earth?  But now it was a relief to stand outside history, to be in a place which took no heed of the works of men; the war and its dead were just one more thing for the valley to absorb back into its soil.
        He turned to his friend, as though wanting him to understand.  ‘I mean, what he found here.  What he understood.’

        For a moment he seemed about to speak again, to explain, but then his face fell.  ‘Not that this makes the slightest bit of difference of course.  After all, I am just a tool of the state, employed to draw factories and armaments and workers for the common good.’  He laughed, the noise too harsh in the darkness.  ‘So there is no point even imagining it.  No point at all’  For a moment he stared down at his boots, alien presences on the rutted e arth of the path.  He does not know that he will die in a plane crash in a few months time, on his way to see men building airfields in the rain, just one more of the piled dead.  He will never be able to say what it is that he has seen here.

        He looked up at his friend.  ‘Got a ciggie?’ he said.