Saturday, 30 January 2010


Obviously, in theory I'm happy to receive any prize or award I can get. Beggars can't always be choosers, after all. However, the various blog awards that come along sometimes confuse me and I don't fully understand where they come from or what I'm to do with them. Would I have to dust them, for example? Or find some silver polish? So, I confess that I've been very rude and pretended I haven't got any [awards or silver polish.] I am sorry if any of you have taken the trouble to award me one. I do seem to remember that one of you did quite recently and I thought it was rather a nice one but then I actually forgot to go and do whatever I was supposed to do with it. I also got a One Lovely Blog Award, but I was extremely insulted by that, and it took me a while to recover.

But today I got an award that I really think suits me. It's called a Kick-Ass Award. And here it is:

I have no idea where they found that old picture of me rocking it on stage. Those were the days. Wasn't I thin? All that hair, too. As you can see, I'm wearing boots. As ever. By my boots shall you know me.

For awarding me this honour, I'd like to thank Cat Clarke of This Counts as Writing, Right? [Yes, obvs.]

Anyway, the point being, yes, I do kick ass. And very proud I am of doing so. The incredible thing is that people seem to like having their asses kicked so much that they even pay me to do it. My lovely clients at Pen2Publication are the proof of this. 

Frankly, there's no point in trying to be all sweetness and light when it comes to publishing. Readers are a ruthless, cruel, heartless lot and you'd better realise how hard you have to work to please them. And publishing is a cruel business, especially at the moment, and the sooner you get your armour toughened for the fight, the better.

So, I will continue to kick ass. You, meanwhile, just need to go and kick your WIP's ass. Whip that WIP, one might say.

Friday, 29 January 2010


Several of you have asked me to talk about my method for editing and revising my own work. Method? This could be a short post...

But, ever true to you, my bloggy readers, I decided that I should give you what you ask for. I will try to make some method out of my madness.

I guess that the possible methods for self-editing are similar to the possible methods for weeding your garden.
  1. Go from one end to the other, picking out all the weeds carefully.
  2. Wander about, picking out weeds as you see them.
  3. Decide that weeds are just plants with more determination and that, since everything is equal in God's eyes, they should be allowed to remain. [Please don't take this view, even if you have admirable Buddhist tendencies. Not if you want to be published and read. Publishers don't do zen.]
Then I decided that this analogy is complete rubbish and that, as with all analogies, it is aesthetically pleasing and yet practically pointless.

There are, in fact, only three things you need to think about when weeding your garden:
  1. You need to know the difference between a weed and a plant.
  2. And you just have to get rid of the damned weeds. Doesn't matter how - just do it.
  3. No matter how carefully you do it, you'll find more weeds at the end, because the removal of one weed often reveals another.
I decided that that is not complete rubbish and is a pretty good analogy for editing your own work.
  1. You need to know what possible errors you're looking for - the difference between a good sentence / plot structure and a crappy one.
  2. And you just need to get rid of the errors.
  3. And when you've got rid of one lot, another lot is revealed.
  4. So you get rid of them.
  5. And so on.
  6. Until your piece of work is weed-free.
Would you like any help with the identification of weeds? I am here for you, as ever. 

There are two categories of weeds in your literary garden.

CATEGORY ONE WEEDS are the choking bindweedy ones, which threaten to take over your roses and throttle the life-blood from them. These must be removed early on, by the roots, otherwise your roses cannot grow and your garden, frankly, is fit only for slugs and other vermin. It is, in the words of Rab C Nesbit, pish. Examples are:
  • Poor characterisation - either in your MCs or your supporting acts. Do your characters always behave as they should? Does the reader like / respect/ identify with / feel for the MC? [We don't need to do all those things, but we have to care.]
  • Pace problems - I wrote about that here.
  • Tension issues - where is the tension? Is it in the right place? Is it satisfied at the right time?
  • Voice slippages - see here.
  • Major POV slippages - here you are.
  • Story structure / shape / arc problems - over here.
  • Saggy middle - hmm, future post, methinks.
  • Crappy ending - here.
  • Story starting in the wrong place - gosh, I'm good to you.
  • And a lot more - which is not very helpful of me but I have a book to write.
[To be honest, you really shouldn't have let most of these anywhere near your garden in the first place. If you are a beginner writer, your book may be littered with these horrors, but a more experienced writer will avoid almost all of them before they appear.]

CATEGORY TWO WEEDS are smaller things, which all writers will find in their first drafts and which we will apply the weeding gloves to with a commendable ruthlessness. Our editors and copy-editors and proof-readers will pick up any that we didn't spot but we want to leave as little as possible for these people. It's our book, not theirs. Category Two weeds are like those dainty things that try to pretend they're real flowers. Sometimes my husband thinks they are and he leaves them. Sometimes he takes out the pretty flowers instead. He is like a novice writer when it comes to weeding, which in his case it usually doesn't, actually. Examples are:
  • Places where tweaks should be made to clarify characterisation / motivation / credibility.
  • Clunky sentences - sentences where you have clustered a collection of clauses in an ugly order, for example, making it hard for the reader to read.
  • Minor POV or voice slippage.
  • Places where thre's too much telling when showing would have been better. Extraneous adverbs.
  • Continuity issues - eg saying that the MC leapt onto the horse's bare back and then later mentioning the stirrups. I have done this. Oh and then there was the one [which made it through all the copy-editors and all the way into the printed book] where a girl flings open the door of a room which ten minutes before I'd said was locked on the other side...
  • Typos, spelling errors, punctuation etc etc. And yes, there will be some in this post. I'll find them eventually. But probably not all of them, because this is a blog post and I can change it later. So shut up, please.
  • Anything that doesn't sound absofrigginglutely perfect when you read it aloud, imagining that your audience consists of fidgety people who are assuming you've got nothing interesting to tell them and they're desperate to leave.
When you've done all that, there's only one more thing to do. Do it again. And possibly again. 

One of the problems is that the weed you removed may have hidden roots. You will have noticed the same in books: if you change one thing, you'll find you have created knock-on effects which now have to be dealt with. So, you do have to remove weeds and plot problems by the root and make sure you've not forgotten any tendrils. I suggest keeping a notebook as you revise and jotting down things you've changed, so that you can check that you've found all the consequences. However, this is a bit methody for me and I prefer the madness approach and the constant re-reading.

And when you're quite sure that no weed is peeping up between the soil of your well-raked flower-border, then you can let an agent or publisher see it. By which time, a previously invisible seed will have begun to sprout, and what you thought was perfection won't be. That's because perfection is unattainable in writing as in gardening, and you have to get over it.

Have I answered your questions? Probably not. See, I don't really have a method. I just do it. And do it again. I honestly think once you can identify the weeds, pulling them out is not that difficult. You can choose whatever weeding method works for you: just get rid of the little buggers.

Oh, and by the way, spell-check and grammar-check are the equivalent of weed-killer: they don't let anything grow. They kill indiscriminately and remove control from the gardener. They may have their place for some people but they are not enough for anyone. Real writers use their hands.

AsVoltaire said, Maintenant, il faut cultiver ton jardin. And here's one I made earlier, with not a weed in sight:

Monday, 25 January 2010


Get yourself a cup of coffee: this is a long one.

Several of you have asked me to blog about Point of View (POV). There's a lot to say about it, but I want to keep this post fairly basic, so I'm not going into every subtlety. As with almost all rules, once you know them you can break them, but POV is an area where you must know the rules perfectly and have very good reasons for breaking them before you can do so.

POV is an anchoring mechanism for your reader's mind. You control your reader with it. When POV is done properly, your reader can engage. If you mess up the POV, it is jarring and discombobulating. Risky stuff. I'm all for avant-garde risky stuff, but only in the hands of an experienced professional. Would you go up in a plane with a beginner pilot and wish him to do acrobatics?

The basic idea of POV may seem simple: through whose eyes / mind is this story being told? But there are extra things to think about, which can produce complications or nuances, and this is where beginner / unpublished writers trip up:
  1. Every single sentence must fit the POV, not just the sentences obviously expressed or felt by the chosen character / narrator.
  2. Sometimes, we can have different POV within the book, but switching POV must be done properly, clearly, consistently and coherently, not just because the author fancies it.
  3. POV is not the same as "voice" but it is inextricably linked. Sometimes, a beginner writer may obey the technical rules of POV but have an inconsistency of voice. I'm not going to talk about voice [much] here, so please read this post if you want to know what I mean.
So, this "every single sentence" thing. Yes, I mean this literally.
"It was a dark and stormy night..." Says who? Who is telling us that it was a dark and stormy night?  At the moment, it could be anyone. Let's read on.
"It was a dark and stormy night when Carmelle Jones pulled up in front of the grim little cottage, flung open the car door and tottered across the cruel gravel as fast as her Manolo Blahniks would allow. The wind grabbed at her hair and rain spattered the notebook that she clutched to her chest. Cursing the impulse which had inspired her to sign up to a writers' retreat at this time of year - in the country, of all places - Carmelle rang the doorbell, shivering, dripping, and wondering just how long it would be before someone would pour her a glass of Merlot."
So, this looks like a third person narrative, told from the POV of Carmelle Jones. We know her thoughts, at the same time as being able to see her from the outside. The narrator is not Carmelle, but is narrating Carmelle's thoughts while also being able to make observations about her appearance.

But here's the second paragraph:
"Inside the cottage, the sound of the doorbell woke Rob Flanders from a particularly pleasant dream as he dozed by the fire. An ex-SAS soldier, Rob always woke instantly, his ever-hard muscles ready for any action required. One smooth movement, and he was on his feet. He knew it was Carmelle Jones, of course. All the other writers had arrived. Soft and lardy, as usual, with arses made for sitting on. Too much laughing and weak eyes. Why he'd got into this business, he sometimes wondered, but someone had said there was money to be made from writers: all that poetic inspiration and not much sense, dreams of eternal fame and personal fulfilment. And he fancied a bit of smooth himself. Not that he'd fancied what he'd seen so far."
So, a different POV. We're seeing the thoughts of two characters. This means it's looking like an omniscient narrator. OK, but the author [me] has to continue this. What I can't then do is have 95% of it being Carmelle's POV and every now and then slip into Rob's. [Not that I would want to slip into Rob's anything, obviously, but you know what I mean. I hope.]

One of the most common mistakes of unpublished writers is POV slippage - the random and convenient decisions by the writer to tell us what someone else sees. POV slippage is not OK. It's like bra slippage. Well, some people [men] mmight think that's OK. But it's not, is it, ladies? It's sloppy and cheap.

BUT, you can switch POV if you follow some rules. POV switches must be clear, deliberate and part of the overall structure of your book. Here are the rules [and please note: I am aiming at beginners / other unpublished writers here. There are some different options for more experienced writers.]
  • Don't switch POV within a chapter. [But see point 4]. Keep different POV for separate chapters.
  • If you do that, you should make a clear structure for this and not do it randomly. For example, at a few intervals through the book, cleverly spaced, you could have POV B, with most of the book in POV A. But see the next point.
  • Make it clear that you have switched POV. You might do this by choosing a different font, but you should use another device as well. It could be obvious from the change in tone / voice; or you could make sure you use the name or whatever would alert the reader to the change of POV and preferably show whose POV it now is. Don't play silly buggers with your reader. Deathwatch is an example of deliberate, structural and obvious multiple POV.
  • An exception to the 3rd point is if you have a device whereby every now and then we are taken directly into the head of the central character. This kind of internal monologue is usually depicted by italics. It's tricky to carry off and should be used sparingly, but it can be effective. Let me give you an example of a book which does this and also incorporates some POV switches to illustrate my points above.
My novel, Sleepwalking, is a third person narrative with a slightly complex POV. When the main character, Livia, is present, it's her POV, though still third person. When she's not present, other characters share POV. When Livia is present, occasionally, she goes into first person internal thought, denoted by italics. Here's an example:
Livia lay awake in her sleeping-bag. The wooden floor was hard under her back. She heard the soft breathing of the others and wondered what they dreamt of. Were all their thoughts and dreams as complicated as hers?
"Liv?" It was Marcus, still awake, too. "Are you sure you're all right?" His voice sounded so reasonable, so strong, so ignorant.
Don't ask. Don't ask. Don't bloody well ask or you might not like the answer. I feel like a speck of dust floating on the skin of the water. What will happen when the wind blows hard and the water shakes its skin away?
As I say, don't do it too much or it gets irritating. The endless, angsty, internal thoughts of a character can be boring. So, keep the device for when you need it.

Let's look at some different basic POV structures.

First person narrative
If your story is in the first person, obviously you cannot say anything other than what that character knows. [Unless you have some separate chapters with a different POV. But this must feel right for the book and not simply be for your own convenience.] Be cautious about first person narrative, because it is restricting and you may end up regretting using it. You can do much more with third person.

NB: if your story is in the first person, you do not also need the italicised internal ranting bits. Sounds obvious, but I keep seeing it in beginner writers' work. First person IS internal narration, so you don't need to differentiate.

First person is also tricky because you may be restricted from using descriptive language. This is because you can only use the language that the character would use. You must get into that character's voice and stay in it. If your character would not think of describing the pretty flowers, you can't describe the pretty flowers either.

Third person narrative from main character POV
I find this the most straightforward and natural method. It allows you to talk about your MC as well as talking through her. Of course, it does mean that you can't say what's happening when your MC is not there, but this makes it a very direct and natural experience for the reader because, if you think about it, that's what real life is like: we don't know what's happening when we're not there.

Omniscient narrator
This should feel natural for story-telling, because why shouldn't the author be omniscient? Thing is, it's not the author who's telling the story: it's the narrator. And the narrator is actually a character, even if invisible. So, it's not easy to pull off. One reason for the difficulty is that if you are an omniscient narrator, you know so much of what is in every character's mind that there is no mystery left. Unless you are not going to tell your reader half of it. That's obviously the trick. So, an omniscient narrator has to mess with the reader a bit, and you have to be careful about messing with readers.Careful handling without trickery, let's call it.

I use the omniscient narrator in my next novel, Wasted. It's a highly individual, often sardonic, detached POV, really like some kind of fascinated God looking down and playing with the events below. It's right for this story but wouldn't have worked in other things I've written. It's right because in a way this book is about how the world works and how, if there were a God, he might play dice.  

Unreliable narrator
This is a fascinating device, and one which I am going to blog about separately. [So, please don't sully the comments section with diversions down this route - your time will come!]

A point about narrative voice
Remember that your narrator is a character, too. This is the case even when the POV is not that of an actual character in the story. The narration must have a voice and a personality, and must be consistent within that voice and personality. It could be sardonic or ironic, chatty or distant. Your narrator's personality is delineated by the language you use and the way you use it. Narrative voice is a powerful tool for the writer and a way in which you can make your book distinct.

Narrator, POV and voice are intrinsic to your book. They will define it. And they are not things to think about later - you'll be able to tweak them later, to get them perfect and iron out any slippages, but you must nail them fully at the start. They will colour everything else you do.

Remember, for every sentence ask yourself: says who?

Thursday, 21 January 2010


I recently tackled how to begin your story and now blog-reader Sleepycatt wants me to tackle endings. What you all don't realise is that middles are the really tricky bit: we must work very hard to avoid saggy middles. I think it's the chocolate and sitting down all day hunched over our keyboards what does it.

Telling you about endings is easy. Writing them is easy too. You just put "THE END" and go and lie down in a darkened room to prepare for the party.

Obviously, it's the bit just before you write those magic words, THE END, that's so fraught with worry. There are two reasons for this:
  1. Readers are most annoying. Some of them want happy endings; others aren't satisfied if there's even one character left alive. Some want everything neatly tied up; others want to wonder. Some like mystery; others wanted it crystal-clear. Some aren't even satisfied with an ending: they want an epilogue too, greedy sods. 
  2. If you've written a good book, your reader is seriously narked that it's finished. Especially if your bloody publisher has gone and filled the last few pages with adverts for other books, some of which may not even be yours, and your reader had thought there was at least another chapter to go. So, your pissed off reader is going to be pissed off whatever ending you do.
In view of both these things, there is only one sensible general point to make about endings:
Do what feels right for your book - someone's going to hate you, whatever you do, so just do it, shut your eyes and get over it. Stay loyal to your book and, for once, sod the readers. Normally, I say think of your readers first, but in relation to endings there is no point in thinking of them. Every book I've written has had people who loved the book but wished the ending had been different. And others who loved the ending. What you don't usually get is people who hated the book and loved the ending: so, do it for your book, not your readers.
However, you wouldn't want me to stop there, so let me offer some specific points to consider. Please file them away in your head and consider them only if you are genuinely having a problem with your ending, and then only obey them in as far as they help your book. Your book is the boss.

Certain types of book tend to require different types of ending. Books for children [as opposed to YA] require greater optimism, clarity and resolution. Books for teenagers are more open to a variety of endings but you'd still be unlikely to get away with a very gloomy ending. With adult genres, as well as children's writing, you must be an expert in your genre so that you know what type of ending is usual in that genre. [Break rules if you want to, but know the rules first.] More "literary" fiction is, by its nature, much more open to esoteric and risky approaches, but any lit fic writer who needs general advice on endings probably isn't ready to write the middle either!

Although not every thread has to be tied up neatly, you can't leave strands completely flailing in the wind. The reader needs to know that you haven't forgotten a character on the edge of a cliff. So, let's say you don't need a neat ending, but you do need the reader to feel that at least some good degree of resolution and partial closure has been reached. Even if you are leaving the way for a sequel, it should be apparent that the sequel will involve new adventures for the characters, not simply a completion of the ones you should have completed here. After all, your sequel may be a couple of years away, or never happen at all.

Your book deserves a proper ending, even if your readers disagree what that ending is.

An ending should round the book off. When it comes, it should feel as though this is where the book was leading all the time, even if the reader didn't see it coming until a little while before. It has to feel like part of the book, rounding it off as though it's what you, the writer, intended all along in a controlled planning kind of a way, even if your planning is no more controlled than mine [which is not very].

By the time the reader reaches the end, big surprises are not necessary, though twists in the tail are fun if handled correctly. There should be a sense of things coming to an ending, of threads being pulled together in advance and not all at the same time. Your book does not end in the last chapter: it has begun to end before then, which is all part of shape and structure.

Second-endings are a bit like epilogues and are sometimes offered as such. They feel something like a sigh of relief, a bow at the end of a performance, a wave goodbye, the follow-through of a golf swing, even an encore after a well-received concert. The work is done, the threads are tied as much as they're going to be, but there's something else you'd like to say, something that you think the book and the reader deserve. An example of a book where I did this and which seemed to hit the mark with readers was Deathwatch. It may make you cry, because you'd forgotten about this minor character, but there he is, and you're glad to see him again, and how he says goodbye seems very fitting. Thinking about it, I've done second-endings in Fleshmarket, The Highwayman's Curse, The Passionflower Massacre and Sleepwalking, too. This could be a habit.

Your readers have expectations. That's why they've spent hours following your characters. Although some of them won't like the ending, and may hate you, I don't think it's fair to cheat them, if for no other reason that you might quite like them to read your next book. Waking up and finding it's all a dream is a cheat [and a cliché] and there are many other ways in which I hope you won't cheat your reader. But do it if you want to - if it's right for your book.

I have just done the ultimate cop-out. My next book, Wasted, which is about risk and chance, has two endings. The difference between the two is enormous - life or death, though it's not as simple as that - but the difference hangs on the thinnest knife-edge, the equivalent of Schrodinger's Cat, which is another theme of the book. But, before you get to read them, you have to toss a coin to determine which is the actual ending. So, if you don't like the ending, don't blame me: blame the coin...

That's the end from me. So, to round off, say good-bye and prepare you nicely for THE END:
There are so many vocal and widely-read people who read this blog that I'm sure there will be a plethora of comments and views of "endings I have loved and hated". I think that would be great - it will point you all in the directions of endings to inspire or warn you. But remember: it's your book and really only you should decide the best ending for it. It's your privilege and your power. Use it wisely!


Monday, 18 January 2010


One skill that authors need to learn is the ability to see into the minds of the editors and agents who will read their proposals. (Another skill is the ability to understand sales and marketing departments, but I'm afraid this skill eludes me. There are some lovely people in them but their minds are beautiful mysteries.)

Since I am neither an editor or an agent, I bring you the words of some real-life ones, so that you can begin to hone your editor-whispering skills.

First, The Top Ten Questions Dutton Editors Ask Themselves. They are somewhat vague, but still a very good starting point. Absorb them till you think like that about your own work.

Second, for something even vaguer, but essential because it's about that all important gut-instinct, here is wonderful blogger and US lit agent, Rachelle Gardner on why she says yes or no to a book. It's worth highlighting the essential part of the post:
"You know how sometimes you're reading a book and you don't want to put it down, and you're really frustrated that it's time to go make dinner or put the kids to bed, and you just want everyone to leave you alone so you can read your book? And whenever you're doing something else, you just want to be finished so you can get back to reading your book?

"But other times you're reading a book, and it's easy to put down. You find yourself distracted. You go check your email, or see what's on TV. Or fall asleep. Not that you can really define anything bad about the book, it's simply not holding your attention. And when you have some time to read, you debate whether to go back to that book or not."
I believe that if we remember that the agent or editor has to love it that much, just like any reader, we will a) improve our work by working harder to capture and hold our readers and b) understand better why a tecnnically good piece of work may be rejected. One thing I tell my clients at Pen2Publication is that we should read our work aloud, imagining that our audience consists of people desperate to go to the beach / pub / bathroom.

Finally, here are two fascinating ones. Lit agent, Janet Reid, lists the reasons why she turns down MSS, with stats. And editor Betsy Mitchell [I think that's the right name!] reveals her own list of reasons for rejection. Some of these reasons are worth a whole blog post each. They may get one, later.

One the the most interesting reasons, I thought, was this one: "Writing quite good, but this isn't the story to launch an author with."

The reason that caught my eye is that it's another facet of the point I've often made: we don't just have to write well - we have to write the right book. Not just the right book for the market, but the right book with which to launch a career, to make a splash, to attract attention.

Open your eyes, writers: think like an editor or agent and you're more likely to hook them. Editors and agents are trying to think like readers, so what you actually have to do is think like an editor or agent thinking like a reader.

If only sales and marketing departments consisted of these readers, things would be so very simple.

Friday, 15 January 2010


When I asked what topics you'd like me to cover this year, Dan Holloway asked about historical fiction [HF]. He says that he loves history but hates historical fiction. He doesn't like it when it is verbose, pompous, archaic, and shows off the research. He wants a story which:
"has sharp, active sentences, brilliant plotting, doesn't tell me about the history of whalebone just because someone's wearing a corset, and speaks like I do. ... Yet stories like that never seem to reach the shelves because they don't obey the conventions of HF.

So I want to know - what REALLY ARE the HF conventions that an agent/publisher will demand? And if someone wants to write a story set in the past that knows how to end a sentence without seventeen subclauses, do they have to give up the HF tag and market it as lit fic?"
To reassure you all that I do know something about this: I have had three historical novels published and they've gained good reviews. All happen to be for teenagers, but everything applies identically to adult HF. Fleshmarket is set in Scotland in the 1820s and The Highwayman's Footsteps and The Highwayman's Curse are set in England and then Scotland in the the 1760s. Luckily, many of you have already been very complimentary about them - phew! Also, of course, I read HF, though I also read and write other genres, too. In fact, the book by my bed just now is a wonderful debut HF crime novel by Alastair Sim, called The Unbelievers, published by Snowbooks. I highly recommend.

There are three main aspects of HF for an author to consider:
  1. Can you change history?
  2. Language - should it be authentic for the period?
  3. How much is too much info and research?
For a very interesting conversation about this, go here and here. [The second is a response to comments from the first.] Read the comments, too.

There are some things you can change and some you can't. Here are the bare bones of it:
  • You are inventing characters, so you are inevitably changing history. So, get over it. 
  • However, your readers must believe you. So, they will believe that an unknown man once met Henry IVth in a jousting tournament and tripped over his halberd [if halberds were around then, of which I've not a clue, but about which I would certainly have to have a clue if I was writing that period, which I wouldn't because halberds and jousting do nothing for me]; but they will not believe that Henry IVth had two heads. If you want H4 to have two heads, you'll have to go down the magical realism / dreamstate / totally weird route and hope that your readers are dabbling with illegal substances. Normal readers will believe that there was a fire in Edinburgh in 1829, even if there wasn't, but they won't believe that Edinburgh was entirely destroyed by a comet in 1829. Unless we are genuinely being asked to accept a parellel-world story.
  • You cannot refer to something that didn't exist then. For example, if matches were invented in 1829, you cannot have matches being used in 1828. Some geeky pedant in hgh school will tell you, in no uncertain terms, that you are an idiot. This provides the most delicious opportunities for HF writers to show off. For example, you cannot imagine the pleasure I got from mentioning umbrellas and kaleidoscopes in Fleshmarket.  Hehehehehehe. Nom nom nom, as my daughter would rightly say about cranberry and brie canapés.
  • BUT you must NEVER show off your research treasures. My husband lying in bed reading my new novel and muttering "research alert" is the nightmare scenario for me. I don't know if Dan Brown is married but I hope his wife had the strength to do a hell of a lot of muttering. [I'll mention this more in the section about wearing your research lightly.]
Damned irritating things, zounds and hell's teeth. Avoid clunking archaisms, please. On the other hand, you've got to get it right. Or, more importantly, you mustn't get it wrong: you cannot use any word or phrase which would not have been used. So, you cannot say, "no-man's land" in a book which pre-dates the First World War, as I tried to do in Fleshmarket but was saved from by my clever editor. You have to be aware of how meanings of words have changed. Take the word "sensible" - it just wasn't used to mean "un-stupid" in the 18th century: it meant "aware". One essential tool for the HF writer is the "Shorter" Oxford dictionary [shorter?? Gah!] This will tell you when words were first used. Invaluable, trust me. Even if it does weigh more than me after a large dinner. But all this does NOT mean you have to litter your story with silly words just for effect.

There are three ways of writing historical language:
  1. Do it very authentically.
  2. Do it moderately. 
  3. Ignore it.
1. I asked my erudite blogger friend, Catherine Hughes, to name me some books that took the very authentic approach. It seems that they generally don't, nowadays. Thank goodness, says Dan, and I agree. Her impression, borne out by her questioning of the good folks in Waterstone's, and my own feelings, is that archaic language only ever works in dialogue. She gave me some examples of HF where archaic dialogue is used: Kate Mosse's Labyrinthe, Paula Brackstone's work, Diana Gabaldon [who also, acc CH, defines the period by the type of dialogue] and Barbara Erskine. There are more examples, as Catherine says, but the main point to take from this is that nowadays you'd be best reserving your strictly authentic language for dialogue. And even then, be warned that you risk getting in the way of the reader's own voice - we readers tend to trip up on dialect and other voices that are not natural to us, including authentic archaic lingo.

2. Moderation is the approach I use, even if moderation does not come naturally to me in other areas of my life. The trick here is not to use specifically archaic words or phrases but subtly to twist modern usage to create a gentle effect of oldness. There are some specific techniques and I offer you an example of each one, all taken from The Highwayman's Curse:
Correct formality of language where modern usage favours a grammatical slip: instead of the modern, "Was I no better than him?", my "archaic" version is, "Was I no better than he?"
Twist of word order: instead of the modern, "I had never met someone like...", my version is, "Never had I met someone like..."
 Use of a slightly archaic word: instead of the modern, "It bothered me that...", I say, "It irked me that..."
3. Ignoring the need for authentic language, while not being obviously anachronistic, in other words by avoiding colloquialism, slang, or words which could not have been used at the time, is possible. I think it would be unlikely to be used in a book for adults, unless it was a spoof, but it can more easily be used in children's books. For example, my friend and hugely successful colleague, Elizabeth Laird, uses this approach. Even her dialogue uses a very down-to-earth tone, the way that people today do speak. It works for her and creates a lovely simplicity of language.

NOTE: whichever of the above methods you use, someone will disapprove. Someone will want you to be more or less "authentic". Sometimes this is because most people don't actually know how people spoke at any given time in history; sometimes this is because you'll never satisfy a genuine expert. It's the same, as I know to my cost, with writing a local dialect or Scots language. You cannot do it correctly without alienating those who don't speak with that voice; and you cannot alter it without alienating those who do speak in that voice.

One should wear one's research lightly, but how lightly is lightly? There will inevitably be disagreement as to what is too much. My own approach, and one which reviewers have picked up favourably, is that I want to know everything but I don't want to show everything. I want to know what the buildings were made of, even if I'm never going to tell you. I want to know what utensils people ate from and what they ate, even though I will not explain every detail to you. If I don't know, I can't feel, and if I can't feel, I can't make you feel.

So, do your research and do it thoroughly. But never let us know just how much you did. Give only as much detail as you need to paint your picture but do paint it richly. That sounds like a paradox but it's one you have to get your head around. You have to find your own way, while thinking always of your reader. Draw him into the story with the richness of your story-telling, but don't ever make him think he's in a history lesson.


Choose your year. It's not enough to tell yourself that the story is set "in the mid 18th Century". If you don't decide on the exact year and even month, you won't know whether there was a king or queen, whether the country was at war or not, what huge political issues were frightening or exercising people. Even though there were no news channels, iphones and Twitter, and even though lots of rural people would be slow to hear bits of news, it's not realistic for your characters to be lolling around drinking mead and not seeming to realise that they were a year into the Wars of the Roses...

DAN - I hope I've reassured you that the sort of HF you might like is published and does well. Maybe Catherine Hughes can recommend some specific titles? So, no, you certainly don't have to avoid the HF tag and think of it as lit fic. Though it can be literary as well - there's every "level" out there.

Do add recommendations for HF that follows any of the approaches I've mentioned. By the way, Cathereine has started a new blog which will eventually have loads of her reviews in categories - I think I'll ask her to be my unofficial assistant whenever I need suggestions of books to illustrate a point!

Zounds! Hark! Doth the clock chime? Methinks a beverage calleth. Would that coffee had thus far been discovered by people of these fair isles...

Wednesday, 13 January 2010


It beats me how I could have done a whole and very long post on how to start your novel and how not to start your novel, without mentioning that all time classic way not to start your novel: with the weather. Especially when the weather is supposed to denote mood, as it so often is in books.

"It was a dark and stormy night" is the infamous opening clause of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel, Paul Clifford, which is the epitome of the clichéd weathery opening of a novel, and has even spawned the annual bad-writing contest, The Edward Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Prize. However, poor old EBL's writing wasn't actually picked on because he opened with the weather, but because his language tended towards the florid, portentous and melodramatic, with unoriginal effect.

Now, however, opening with the weather has become a cliché and therefore to be treated cautiously unless you can do it in an original or effective way. Maybe leave it for paragraph two.

Another reason you should be careful of using weather to define mood, is that it is rather too obvious to have the sun shine when a character is happy and to bring on the rain at funerals. Of course, it adds atmosphere and of course we do it sometimes - often, in fact - I'm just saying: think before you play God with the weather. Do it cleverly and subtly.

And certainly think carefully before you open your story with something as boring as the weather. Even though we're British, we'd still rather focus on something else. Especially now. [And, to answer a question from a non-British blog-reader the other day: yes, we do have snow in the UK, every year, just not everywhere, not so much, not so deep, not so long, and not so bloody cold. We even have a great skiing season every year up here in Scotland - thing is, normally it's confined to the mountainy bits, not my local high street.]

If it helps you remember to avoid using the weather to denote opening mood, perhaps I should point out that it would also be that old friend of literature students, a pathetic fallacy. And you wouldn't want to be accused of that, would you? It sounds most demeaning.

After all, imagine telling someone you didn't like his pathetic fallacy...

[Thanks for all your excellent comments after the last post on how/where to start your novel, by the way. I'm glad the main messages you took were: 1) do what is right for your story and 2) quit worrying, get writing. I'm sorry I haven't replied to them all: I am overwhelmed at the moment with deadlines and I am sometimes so tired that I can't find my way to the chocolate cupboard. Yes, that tired. I know I also haven't got round to all c180 blogs whose owners visited my blog party on Sunday - I've done about 150, probably explaining my severe eye-strain just now. Twas fun though - lots of clever bloggers out there.]

Next post: historical fiction. Probably on Friday.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010


Even blog posts have to start in the right place. There! I started! We often angst about where exactly to start when writing a novel. We're right to angst about it because if we don't start the right way, we risk losing readers before we've got going. On the other hand, we're wrong to angst about it.

Why are we wrong to angst about starting points for novels?
  • because you can change it later - just get started and see what happens. Changing the beginning later is one of the easiest aspects of a revision, but you need to get the beginning down now, even if you end up moving it.
  • because the hard and fast rules are not very hard or fast. The essential one is: do what works for THIS book.
  • because starting points are about to be a lot easier to think about, as I'm about to give you some guidelines. Hooray! And then some options and examples. Even more hoorayish.
There are beginnings and beginnings: the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first chapter, the first 5,000 words. Your first book. All these are beginnings and all are important in their ways. One leads to the other, and if you get one wrong, you may lose your reader. In this sense, the first sentence and paragraph are technically easier and less important than the first chapter / 5,000 words, because most readers will give you the benefit of the doubt if you haven't 100% grabbed them in a few lines.

HOWEVER, I aim to grab readers as early as possible and hold them in a vice-like grip until way after the last sentence of the book. So, for me beginnings simply involve techniques, and are not really more much more important than the rest. I recommend you take the same view.

1. Your first chapter (and I tend to prefer my chapters short, especially first ones, but this is NOT a rule) should do the following:
  • give a strong flavour of what sort of book this is. Sinister? Poignant? A thriller? Shocking? Light? Easy? Chicklit? Erotic? Historical?
  • introduce the setting / period / context [showing, not telling it].
  • give tantalising clues about future action.
  • introduce a main (usually the main) character and his / her central flaw or problem.
  • contain elements which make it impossible for the reader not to read on.
2. When writing your first chapter, you must bear in mind:
  • that the reader knows nothing that is in your head. But you must be in your reader's head at all times, especially the beginning, when your reader is ignorant. Your reader wants to be engaged but he could very easily pick up a different book instead if he doesn't understand enough of what you're planning. So, you must give them enough for them to understand what you want them to understand. And not understand what you don't want them to understand.
  • that the reader cares absolutely nothing for your characters. It is up to you to make the reader care. Quickly and powerfully.
  • that the reader does not want lots of explanation, backstory and introduction. The reader wants only to know why he should spend many hours reading this story.
3. Every sentence should work as hard as any other sentence. Therefore, I do not want to say that the first paragraph or first sentence are the most important, because that would imply I take less trouble over subsequent ones. However, you should apply section two above more carefully to the earliest sentences in your WIP.

4. Although writers angst about beginnings, actually they should be angsting about middles. Beginnings are easy compared to middles and more readers are lost in Chapter Two than Chapter One. It's usually not too difficult to use Ch 1 to pose all sorts of intriguing and compelling elements. Trouble is, novice writers often then pack Ch 2 (and the ensuing ones) with interminable back-story and dull explanation. Please bear this in mind: back story needs to be drip-fed, gently, so that we want more, not less. Think of your reader: will he thank you for making him drool with excitement in Ch 1, only to be bored rigid by a history lesson for the next 10,000 pages? Or even three.

5. Consider carefully how much information you give, how many clues you offer. Tell enough but not too much - NEVER tell too much at the beginning. But do tell enough - the reader doesn't want to be confused. There can be a fine line between confused and intrigued.

I know what you're thinking: all that above stuff is very obvious. What we want to know is WHERE to start the damned story? Like, at the beginning? Or in medias res? Or what?

There is only one place to start your story: the right place for that story. Every story has its best place to start, and you have to find it. For this, you should not be thinking about rules: you should be thinking about story-telling and engaging your reader. I cannot tell you where to start your story. But I can tell you some places I've started mine and why.

[NB: the techniques and rules of novel-writing are identical whether you are writing a novel for a ten-year-old or a ninety-year-old. Books for teenagers and other young readers have some extra rules and conventions, which make them harder, not easier, to write. Therefore, please do not for one second think: she writes novels for teenagers - what does she know about rules and structures? Frankly, I am required to apply rules and structures more rigorously, not less. Adult writers can learn a thing or two from YA / children's writers. OK?] 

[BTW, I could do a post on prologues but it would be a very short one: essentially, quit worrying about whether your book should have a prologue. If it needs one, have one. Or call it Chapter One if you're worried.]

So, one place to start is an earlier event which informs the whole of the main story. My first historical novel, Fleshmarket, does this. I called it the prologue because it happens six years before the main story. The protagonist is a 14 year old boy who, when he was eight, heard his mother scream during surgery without anaesthetic, and watched her die of blood-poisoning five days later. That scene [surgery + death] is the first chapter and was absolutely the right place to start: it is the beginning of Robbie's story; the whole reason why his life is as it is by the time we get to Chapter 2, when, aged 14, he meets and seeks revenge on the surgeon responsible.

It's also a supremely shocking first chapter. It has been described by many people as the most shocking opening of any book they've read. [It's never put a teenage reader off, btw...] Again, shock is one way to grab your reader, if your readers like to be shocked. It is an honest way to start this book, as it very much gives a flavour of what's to come. You are left in no doubt as to whether or not you want to read on. I chose to take the risk of alienation, because I judged that enough people would be drawn in. As it happens, I was right and Fleshmarket has become my most read book.


I have done this twice. My latest novel, Deathwatch, is about a stalker following a girl, for reasons which you don't know till much later. The opening chapter is a flashforward from the main action, to a month ahead. As Deathwatch is a crime thriller, and its essence is not shock but sinister suspense, this device allows me to weave clues and hints, and then for the reader to know more than the protagonist [the victim]. Twice more during the book we go to the flashforward time, with the main action catching up.

I used the same device in The Passionflower Massacre, my favourite of my novels, btw, should you wish to honour me with a purchase. The first chapter is set 25 years ahead of the main action. An old woman is visiting a man in prison, where he has been serving a life sentence for mass murder and is about to be released. Various clues and questions are introduced: who is the woman? Who is the man? What is each planning? [They both clearly have secret motivations.] What will happen when he is released in three weeks' time? Chapter 2 goes back to the main action. The prison scene is then repeated, each time with the man one week nearer release, until his actual release day...

Both these books also use a sinister, rather than shocking, start. They raise questions, set tone / mood / voice / atmosphere. They tell enough but not too much.

In a sense, The Passionflower Massacre starts at, or at least near, the end. Actually, there's quite a bit more important action after we catch up with the 25 year headstart. Starting at the end might seem odd, even foolish. It certainly needs careful handling, but it's often a useful place to start, as long as you don't mess around with your reader. Readers hate to be messed around with. [Actually, do mess around with them: just don't let them feel messed around with...]

But a much more obvious and paradigmatic end start is my opening for Chicken Friend. Chicken Friend is my one book for 8-10 year-olds, and my one "light" one, although there's a lot of suspense and stuff to worry about for the reader; one of my blog-readers, the "anonymous" Proe, an adult thriller writer whose opinion I obviously respect, was kind enough in a recent comment to praise its mastery of thriller techniques.

Here's how CF starts:
"I suppose they're saying I  messed up. Yes, well, I'd like to see you cope any better with a family like mine. I was only doing my best. But when you have a family straight out of Crazyville, "best" doesn't actually make much difference. Like trying to clean up a litre of milk with a cotton bud.
     Personally, I blame them. The crazy family.
     Right now, I'm sitting in the chicken shed on my own. Apart from the chickens. It's a good place to sit and think and try to work out where it all went wrong. And wait. Chickens don't judge. But they are good listeners."

So, what do we learn? [We know "I" is a girl from the cover and the blurb. Note to Jo after comment below the post: we will learn in the next para that her name is Becca!] Something bad has happened, but she is also waiting for something / some news. She's annoyed by her family. Whatever has happened may or may not have been her fault, but people are blaming her, which is very frustrating for anyone, and especially for children because their voices are not heard. She seems like a friendly character, misunderstood but well-meaning: the fact that she goes to the chickens for comfort and peace is endearing. So, we want to know more about her, we want to identify with her, we want to know what has happened and what she is waiting for. The tone / voice is direct, fresh and young. There is an element of light humour, at least a wry smile - chickens being good listeners is not something that a swearing, angry, nasty person would think. This does not feel like a story that a parent should worry about their child reading.

It is, at least, enough to set the scene and make the reader want to know more. But, it's near the end of the story. Very near the end of the story. And she's going to tell the whole story now. So, the reader knows that she doesn't die. The chickens don't die. The chicken shed does not catch fire. So, by starting at the end, you automatically remove SOME elements of surprise.

This won't matter, because Chicken Friend has lots, lots more to hook you with. And that, really is the point: writing is not about hooking the reader at the beginning. It's about hooking the reader and keeping her hooked for every single sentence.

And that's why you shouldn't angst too much about beginnings.

All the above are somewhat fancy, somewhat technical, as though there has to be some great decision about where to start. There doesn't. If it's obvious that the story should just start at the beginning, just start it at the beginning.

Both my highwayman books do this. The Highwayman's Footsteps gets stuck in with this opening paragraph:
I felt cold metal on the side of my skull before I heard the voice. I knew at once what it was. A pistol. Resting on the bone just behind my ear. The favourite place for murderers, robbers, highwaymen - because, by angling the pistol slightly inwards they could be sure to blow a man's brains out before he might have time to scream.
Can't get much clearer than that: in medias flipping res, or what?

And, as for the sequel, The Highwayman's Curse, here's the first para:
The man was dead. Of this there could be no doubt. No one could survive such a terrible injury.
So, few words, raising so many questions: who is the man? Who is looking at him? What is the terrible injury? Please may we see it?? Was this accident or murder? If murder, where is the murderer? And you even get a flavour that it's historical, without labouring of historical language [which I'm tackling in a post soon] - the second sentence very subtly nails this, by using a form of words that doesn't quite ring true for 21st century prose, yet is not jarringly archaic.

None of these beginnings is any better than the other. Each is simply exactly right for the story that follows.

So, try not to angst about your beginning. Yes, it's important, very important. But so is the middle. And as for the end, well, that must be the subject of another post entirely!

Monday, 11 January 2010


So, it's the start of a new term. Year Two of this blog begins today and we have serious stuff to do, especially after that riotous blog party which I have not yet recovered from.

But do you remember new terms and new school years? We never really got any work done that first day, did we? All too busy exchanging stories of the holidays and showing off our new pencil cases.

Today is no exception. I didn't plan to start haranguing you till tomorrow anyway but today I felt a bit jealous of all those people putting pictures of snow scenes on their blogs so I thought I'd do the same, even though there's no relevance to writing. No learning points at all. No application to your WIPs. To be honest, I could probably think of one - I usually do - but my head's hurting from all that partying.

I'm assuming that all of you, whatever part of the world you're in, have heard that the UK is a bit snowy at the moment? I saw a pavement today for the first time in weeks. Poor old Jane Smith is still living off mice as she hasn't been able to get out of her hovel for ages to get to the shops. [Somehow she has made an exception for Starbucks, but she is a marvel that way.]

Anyway, here are my snowy contributions:

Not a road, a canal:

My dog in some confusion about this thing called "canal, not road":

Giant shadows in the snow:

The setting sun on snowy Torduff reservoir:

And finally, because you have to admit she's very sweet:

Right, that's it: tomorrow, we work. I have no idea which of your many good ideas I'm going to choose as a topic. You'll just have to come and see - but probably not too early in the morning.

Sunday, 10 January 2010


One year old today! Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me, happy birthday you crabbit old bat... I know it doesn't scan, but we're on HOLIDAY today. So, no advice, no nagging, just some traditional party things for you:
  1. A speech. [Sorry.]
  2. An activity. [Hooray.]
  3. A gift. [Double hooray.]
  4. A request. [Please say yes.]
For me, last year was The Year of the Blog. On Jan 10th, I rose from a sleepless night of extreme crabbitness, headed straight for my desk and spontaneously started a blog, without knowing what on earth I was doing or where it would lead. I never dreamt it would have led to making so many new friends, and "meeting" so many hard-working writers dedicated to improving their writing for publication. I certainly had no idea that it would take so much of my time nor that I would enjoy it so much. And I absolutely had no intention of starting an actual business from it, as I ended up doing eleven months later with my writing consultancy, Pen2Publication. [Going very well, thank you very much! I'm delighted to have been able to set several clients on their way to much improved WIPs already, and I feel very honoured that so many are trusting me to do so.]

The support of all you blog-readers has kept me inspired; you've enabled a real community to grow up here; and so many of you have contributed your own wisdom and experiences in the comment sections. This blog is far more than me: it's is all of you, too. I'd love to mention you all but I'll just take some examples from most recent commenters. I've loved the unstoppable book-loving enthusiasm and knowledge of Catherine Hughes; the industry uber-wisdom of Jane Smith and the US perspective from Lynn Price; the curmudgeonely acerbity of the "anonymous Proe", and the generous comments of so many of you all over the world. I've valued comments from Aussies, such as Catdownunder and Ebony; African viewpoints from readers such as Lauri in Botswana and Amanda in South Africa; Harry in Bulgaria; Miriam in Israel; lots of Americans (too many to mention but I'll scratch the surface with two Jos and two Sarahs); and in the UK, again so many of you, including Elen, Mary, Kate, Thomas, the Davids, more Sarahs; and then there was my first  blog baby, Marsha Moore; and all the great Twitterers, Helen, Helena, Flixtonmum, Simon, Marshall, Lacer, and others; and the self-publishers who are serious about the quality of their writing, more than the simple fact of having their name on a cover: Dan and Marc, hats off to you. I mustn't forget the young ones, too - watch out for Iffath and, to see a young book-loving blogger in action, hop over to her place when she puts a link to it below, as I'm sure she will! And there was the wonderful Isla, who won the young writers' comp I arranged and who emailed me so sparkily in the following weeks. Oh gosh, there are so many more of you. I know I've left tons of you out but please realise that I am grateful to each and every one of you who has commented, even when you've disagreed with me. [How dare you?] If you've lurked and not commented, I'm glad you're there, too - lurk as long as you like!

In short - thank you all for your company, your support, your wisdom and your humour.

THE ACTIVITY - blog-puffing
Here's what to do.
  1. In a comment below, briefly advertise your blog or on-line presence. NB: this must be for your writing, not selling any other product. I will remove any comment which seems to violate the spirit of this activity, which is about allowing writers and readers to meet.
  2. Note the word "briefly". Your blurb is unlikely to be read if it's waffly or boring. You are selling yourself, remember, and readers will choose whom to visit. 
  3. If you can include a clickable link, do. But if you can't, don't worry: just include the full URL.
  4. If you are on Twitter, give your Twitter name. Mine is @nicolamorgan
  5. Then visit some of the blogs that you will find mentioned here and leave comments on them. Please visit at least 4 during the next 48 hours.If you have time for lots more, fabulous! Try to visit some you haven't seen before.
  6. Please keep returning here during the day to find more ideas. 
  7. Keep checking your own blogs during the day, so that you can respond to comments that people leave there. Successful blogging is active blogging.
  8. If you don't have a blog where people can leave messages, but just a website or online work in another forum, simply make sure that your directions to it are clear and compelling.
For your amusement, and by regular demand, I bring you three funny stories. You may have read them before, in which case I apologise. Choose from the story of my terrible / amusing event in a coffee shop; or my terrible / amusing experience of an author photo-shoot with boots; or my terrible / amusing experience at Belfast International airport, where my brain caused a security alert.

It's confession time. I hope you will be so well-disposed to me on my birthday that you will a) forgive me and b) grant my request. Eeek. See, I foolishly went public with my goal / resolution, which involved a daily word count target of 1500 words until my current novel was finished. I now realise that in this particular year, I simply can't do it, not without killing myself. I'm moving house in the most complicated way imaginable in three months' time and I can't begin to tell you the other things I have to deal with this year. So, pleeeease will you allow me to reduce the target to 1000 words on a writing day? I may well do more on some days, but I'm going to get twisted in guilt if I keep missing targets. Pretty please? I won't be lazing around the rest of the time - actually, I'll be doing a lot of mental planning for that novel, but if I make myself write it too fast, it won't be good enough. And you wouldn't want me to write a rubbish book, would you?

Now, let the party commence!

Friday, 8 January 2010


Having promised to go with my heart AND my head by blogging much more about writing techniques than submitting techniques during my second blog year, which starts on Sunday, I thought I'd do my last post of my first blog year on one detail of submissions which often crops up and which I haven't fully dealt with. I'm doing this because a) it's tricky, so I want to get it out of the way and b) it's damned boring but generates loads of verbiage.

As you know, I write from a UK perspective, but actually the answer is going to be remarkably the same wherever you are, although UK agents may more often request that you don't do multiple subs, mainly because they are more often smaller or sole-traders and simply can't afford the time to read your work if they've little chance of you ultimately choosing them in a competitive situation. [Hooray for competitive situations, I hear you say.]

SO: "Should I / may I submit to several agents or publishers at once? What if their guidelines say they don't like multiple submissions? Exclusivity, srsly?"

The over-riding answer to this conundrum is as follows:
Let common sense and decency prevail. HOORAY! Do as you would be done unto but don't prostrate yourself at the altar of anyone - any agent who demands abject subservience and doesn't understand what it's like for writers doesn't deserve clients; any writer who can't see how to work decently and fairly with an agent or publisher, doesn't deserve one. Follow Bentham's principle of utilitarianism, "the greatest good to the greatest number of people."  This means that, in each situation, work out how your action will be fairest and best for both you and the agent / publisher. Clearly, if you think only of them and not of yourself, they could have exclusivity for ever. In which case, you'd suffer and your book would probably never be published, thereby depriving readers of your wondrousness. Which would never do.

If, however, you think only of yourself and disobey a request for exclusivity, you'd be likely to land in deep water, piss people off and show yourself as a very dodgy person to work with. In which case, you would also end up probably not being published.

So, realise that agents and publishers are neither stupid nor cruel**.  They are realistic, mostly decent and very, very busy, if they're any good. Each one is also different and you usually don't know what they're like until you approach them, so do so politely and open-mindedly, as you would anyone you wanted to do business with.
[**Actually, some are, but these are not the mainstream ones or ones that any published author has heard of. Yes, there are some oddballs, but oddballs tend to get stuck in small holes and with any luck you'll never come across them. If you think you might have found one, Google them before proceeding. It's called "due diligence" in the business world.]
I started to write a list of does and don'ts, but it became too prescriptive and at the same time couldn't cover every eventuality because, to repeat, each agent or publisher is different and has a different situation. The best thing for you to do is see them all as human, in a human situation, and to realise that they DO want to find good books but keep having dross chucked at them. Accept that they understand the situation for writers, too, because all their clients are, by definition, writers. They know that we can't wait months and months for each agent to reply, and they will do their best to be reasonable. But an agent's first duty is to existing clients [and publishers to authors] and when some of the limited remaining time is spent considering a new writer's work, only to find that the new writer has secretly already approached other agents who are also all working on it, it's very galling. They're not usually salaried, remember, so they need to know whether their work is likely to pay off.

This is why, further than exhorting you to be sensible, rational, decent, and the sort of person you would like to do business with yourself, I cannot tell you more precisely what to do. I do really think you need to rely on your common sense for this. Common sense is a very important asset for a writer at any stage of his career and I can't recommend it enough.

Luckily, however, there is something to help inform your common sense. I'd like you to hop right over to this excellent post by a real agent, Mary Kole of the Andrea Brown Agency in new York. I think Mary gives a really good insight into how a "normal" agent thinks, though note that she does point out, as I have done, that everyone's different. These are not rules, just clues to common sense. It's the fact that they're all different that makes this hard to make rules for, but actually rather easy to find a way round: be decent, sensible and human and you'll get it right.

And if in doubt: be open and up-front. Ask. What is the agent going to do? Reject you because you asked a reasonable question?? I think not.
Since from next week I'm going to be majoring on writing not submitting, let me answer one other submission question I am often asked:
"What is the longest we should be expected to wait for a response before we could politely nudge the agent or publisher to see if they're going to reply?"
I offer you my shortest answer yet: three months.

Anyway, people, I hope that helps and I hope that you're looking forward to improving your writing before you ever get to the point of submitting. Because, you know what the one big mistake writers make with their submission?
Submitting it too soon. When is too soon? Now is almost certainly too soon.

On the other hand, at some point you've got to do it... Yes, at some point you have to stop angsting and fretting, stop removing commas and putting them in again, and just send it out there. And my job over the next year is going to be to show you how to get to that point.

Stay with me!

Meanwhile, don't forget the birthday blog party, here, on Sunday. And if you're far away from this time zone, don't worry: the party continues for 48 hours!

Thursday, 7 January 2010


Even though I'm in a really bad mood for many reasons and completely fed up with the snow, I am generously inviting you all to my first birthday party. Yes, on Sunday 10th Jan, this blog will be One Year Old!

I was reading some of the first posts just now, and remembering how I felt getting my very first comments, and how extraordinarily quickly so many of you found me. Echo Freer and Tom Vowler were amongst the first commenters, and you and others are still here. I started with four posts that day, to get the thing going. I remember I had the idea that it would end up being a set of resources, more like a strangely-organised book than a normal linear blog. Well, I have a feeling it ended up being something akin to both. One problem now is that there's so much info on it [more than a quarter of a million words!] that it's now hard to find what you're looking for, and Blogger's search facility is useless for the older stuff, which is why I've had a lot of suggestions to turn it all into a proper book.

Anyway, what's this party, then? Well, it's a blog party, which means we're all going to come visiting YOUR blogs, bottles or chocolate in hand. The reason I'm warning you now is that you may want to do a bit of housework on your blogs and prepare a wonderful, witty and / or wise post for Sunday, so that your visitors can see you at your sparkly best.

If you don't have a blog, you can tell us about your book, if you have published one, or point us towards something that you've written somewhere on the internet. [You may not ask anyone to pay any dosh to read your words - this is a party, not a sales conference.]

When you turn up here on Sunday, I'll tell you exactly what to do, but it will be something like this: I will ask you to post a brief comment [on Sunday] telling us about your own blog / writing, to encourage people to visit you. Then people toddle over in their droves and leave a comment on your blog, and then you visit them. It should be a geat way for you to show people what you do.

NOW, however, I'd like to ask you something else: what would you like me to blog about over the coming year? I do want to focus more on the actual techniques of writing, within all the various genres and more generally, because I do think unpublished writers spend too much time worrying about submission details, rather than the most important thing, the actual writing. But I'm still happy to write about the process of submissions if there's still anything left that I haven't said. Comments below, please.

On Sunday, I will no doubt wax all sentimental about how much I like you all and how I have valued your company, but let's leave that till then, shall we? Today, as I say, I'm in a bad mood. Which is entirely as it should be for the Crabbit Old Bat, but still. Mind you, some remarkably lovely comments about Chicken Friend from that fellow crabby one, Proe, on my last post, have gone some way to smooth my brow. Thank you, Proe, you old curmudgeonely one! I value your compliments almost as much as your regular attempts to stir up my not-so-inner crabbit.

Meanwhile, you might like to read one of the posts from Day One of this blog, so you can see how little my advice has changed over the year... I may be crabbit, but I am at least consistent. Some might say boring. If they were very, very bold.

I hope to see you all dressed in your Sunday best, any time from 08.00 UK time, on 10th Jan! Spread the word - all are invited!

For now, your requests for topics, please.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010


Right. OK. Crabbit is well and truly back. And, with a sudden an unexplained influx of new followers, it seems like a very good moment to mark my territory and, frankly, urinate very pointedly in all the right places.

I am a very misunderstood woman. See, some of you seem inexplicably to think that I advocate disobedience and rule breaking. Well, I do, in life and in writing, but only in TWO circumstances:

a) when you are totally in control.
b) when you are not submitting your work to agents or publishers.

And, if you think about it, when b) is not the case, a) is not. [Think about that, please. I know, it confusticated me a bit, too. The old double negative problem.]

My last blog post was about disobedience - specifically, and only, the possibility of sending a query to publishers who have said they are not taking unsolicited submissions. This is not actually disobedience, because a query letter is not a submission. The situation in the US is different because you always use queries anyway. Which was the point.

[By the way, I'm very grateful to Book Maven and others for raising this because it's important that it's clear to everyone and I'm mainly pissed off with myself for not being crystal clear. If I've not been understood, I regard that as my fault. Still makes me cross, though!]

Perhaps I was too subtle. See, if I'd just said, "Do as you're bloody well told every second of every day, or DIE" it would have been so simple. Instead, I gave you a situation in which theoretically you could  circumnavigate disobedience, and I even hinted that outright disobedience MIGHT get you somewhere in a very select number of circs, insluding your having written the most fabulous and irresistible book, because no publisher can resist irresistible. And then some people went off the path and thought I was advocating disobedience of the submission guidelines themselves.

No. Deffo not.

Thing is, and this is where rule-breaking becomes an art form, all good rules have reasons, and knowing the reason is essential before the ability to break it in chosen circs. And the reason for that occasional No Unsolicited MS rule is simple: the publisher knows that everything unsolicited is likely to be crap. Because it usually is. But it might not be. And in the unlikely situation that you've written perfection perfectly, the publisher does actually want it. But only in the form which the sub guidelines say, because the publisher has not made the guidelines up while high on something [probably] but because that's how the publisher likes to receive submissions, and why would you ever want to send your beloved work in a way the publisher doesn't like? Unless you're a total idiot.

Whenever you are breaking a rule - and good writers do this in their writing all the time - you have to know why, and why the rule is there. This rule [No Unsolicited Submissions / MSS] is only ever selected to protect publishers from your crapitude. Because that's what they normally get. So do agents. Overwhelmed with the stuff. They'll do anything to avoid it. Wouldn't you? If 99% of your post every day was time-wasting dross, you'd stop going to the door to pick it up, wouldn't you? But you still go to the door hoping for the fab news, the fan letter or whatever.

Anyway, that wasn't what I came here today to say. What I want to say, in my most crabbit and grouchy way is:

YOU MUST OBEY SUBMISSION GUIDELINES TO THE ABSOLUTE LETTER, even when you do have a jewel of a book. Even if you think you're God's gift etc. Even if you are.


So, if the guidelines for a particular agent or publisher say tie a yellow ribbon to it, tie a yellow ribbon to it.

Is that clear enough?

If the publisher says she doesn't like email submissions, don't damn well email it. If an agent says send 3,497 words of a sample, just do it. If the agent says no toffees, no toffees, even Wrther's Originals.

Read my lips: read the submission guidelines of your chosen (and he or she must be chosen) agent or publisher and follow them. Don't do blanket submissions because all agents and publishers are different. If you don't believe me, see Colleen Lindsay's NEW submission guidelines here. It's a very good lesson in why you should check the specific guidelines of the person you are querying or subbing to.

For crying out loud, there's so much good advice out there that there's really no excuse for not doing this. Ignore the stories of rare authors who did disobey [even if it was me] and hit the mega-bucks [that wasn't me] - those stories are often apocryphal because apocryphal stores are fun and memorable. And bloody irritating. And tell us nothing useful.

If you make a mistake, don't weep, don't stress, don't angst - just do your very, very best to please the people you need to please. Because if you're not interested in pleasing them, then on your own head be it. Stay unpublished - it's fine by me.

And believe you me: pleasing an agent or publisher is as nothing compared to pleasing your ultimate readers.

Sunday, 3 January 2010


One of the hurdles which publishers sometimes put in your way is the "No Unsolicited Manuscripts" one. Bit like arriving at a house for a party to find the lights off in the hall and the door shut. You can see the party going on upstairs but no one's answering the bell. Damned irritating.

As a party-goer, you have three choices.
1. Creep away and go back home, seriously pissed off that everyone's at the party except you. Fume unpleasantly and to no effect or find another party to go to.

2. Hammer on the door / throw stones at the windows till someone notices.

3. Phone and explain that you're on the doorstep and would they please come and let you in.

As an author, you have three choices.
1. Obey. Don't send them anything; save your stamps and paper. After all, they're obviously too busy to read it and you'll annoy them by disobeying, won't you?

2. Disobey. Just send it anyway. After all, they won't turn down the Next Big Thing, will they? Publishers and agents DO want your book if it IS perfect for them.

3. Send a query - a letter or email which makes your book sound so irrestistible and shows that your power of language is so astonishing that they will ask you to send your submission (partial or full). Then it won't be unsolicited, will it?

Each of these choices carries risks of a negative outcome.
1. Obeying carries a negative certainty: your book will absolutely not be taken by that publisher, because you haven't sent it. Therefore, obedience is not necessarily beneficial, though it is safe. If obedience is your forte, see option 3.

2. Disobeying obviously carries the risk of outright rejection simply for having disobeyed, and the risk of having wasted your stamps, paper and time. However, it carries the tiny possibility of success. So, it may be worth disobeying if you are as sure as possible that there is a very good specific reason why this publisher might really be looking for this book. Is your book a perfect match? [Don't say so: that's for them to decide for themselves.] Can you be sure that your pitch is so perfect and so compelling that it will get you past the No Unsolicited Submissions rule, which they have put there for a reason?

NB: the reason why they say No Unsolicited Submissions is, basically, that they are sick of being overwhelmed by the utter crapulosity of the guff that lands on their desks, often accompanied by toffees*, tea-bags**, stupid rhymes***, and glitter confetti****.

*    -  see this post.
**  -  an agent friend just received another one, accompanied by a covering letter suggesting that she might enjoy a cup of tea while reading the jolly MS. Consider the possibility that a) that is for the agent to decide and she is perfectly capable of knowing whether she wants a cup of tea b) this might not be the first time someone thought of this rubbish idea c) that she might think twice before drinking the tea from a grubby bag that has been fingered by a stupid author before being stuffed in a re-used envelope and d) it says absolutely nothing for the quality of the MS, which is the only thing the agent cares about.
*** -  see this shame-faced post here.
**** - a well-known way of pissing off agents and publishers.

3. The risk of the query letter approach is that if the answer is no, you have buggered your other option of disobeying. Remember when you were a kid and you did that oh-so-mature thing and asked permission to do something exciting / radical and the person said no? Well, then you couldn't do it, could you? Whereas, if you'd just gone ahead and risked it...

The query letter approach is also very difficult. To query someone who has already indicated busyness, exasperation, crabbitness, or general lack of desire to read an MS that hasn't come from an agent, means that your query must be spectacularly brilliant. Your book must be patently the right book, aimed at the right publisher at the right time. It must be clear from the covering letter that it is exactly what he or she wants, even though you don't know what it is that he or she wants. You have to express it so beautifully and compellingly that the publisher simply cannot pass on it.

Your query must, in short, be perfect, even though no one, not even I, can tell you what that perfect query is. Why can't we tell you? Because we don't know your book and we don't know the mind of the agent / publisher you are sending it to. Every book is different; every author is different; every agent or publisher is different. Therefore, each ideal query letter is different.

Having said that, you expect me to advise you and so I shall. Your query to publisher who has stated No Unsolicited Submissions must, in no particular order:
  1. Show [not tell] that you are a wonderful wordsmith, with a perfect command of our language and an ability to engage.
  2. Include nothing that reveals that you are not fully aware of how publishing works and knowledgeable about the market for your book. There are many, many common glaring errors in query and covering letters  - see some of my posts about covering letters. I know covering letters are not the same as queries, but they follow the same principles of needing grab your expert readers.
  3. Describe the book in a paragraph or two and in a way that really does make it sound like a book that lots of people would want to read and therefore a book which the publisher can sell in quantities - but Do Not Tell Them This. One good way to think about this is to think how you'd write the blurb on the back of your book, though it should be somewhat longer than most blurbs.
  4. Offer a book of the exact sort that publisher usually handles - that way, how could they turn you down?? [Easily, actually - it could be the right sort of book but not written in the right way.]
  5. Show [not tell] that you are professional, non-delusional, stable, hard-working, talented and very wonderful to work with.
Told you it wasn't easy...

You might want to know which of the three options I would choose if I didn't have an agent. Frankly, it would depend on the book and the publisher. If I genuinely thought I'd written a book which was a perfect match for publisher X, I'd use Option 2 or 3. Yes, but which one, you annoying woman?

Eeny, meeny...

Option 2. Ooh, scary.

Or Option 3.

No, seriously. It would depend. I'd do everything possible to find out about the person I was planning to approach, see if I could contact one of their existing authors for advice, case them out [in a non-stalkery kind of way...] on their blog or website or Twitter and then I'd make a judgement as to which to do. If they don't have any of those on-line presences and I couldn't find out anything about them, I'd have to have a stab in the dark.

Option 3 is the more professional and more difficult. Therefore, if you want me to give a definitive rule:


But you've got to do it brilliantly and have written a brilliant book. On the other hand, you're going to need to have done that anyway.