Friday, 30 April 2010


For those of you who don't know how these work: an intrepid writer sends me her covering letter plus the first 500 words of the proposed MS and I put them here for your constructive comments. It is assumed that if this was actually being sent to agent or publisher, a synopsis would be included, and more than 500 words, so please allow for that.

This submission is from Sarah - she can say her surname later if she wants to but I'm just calling her Sarah. She is offering her novel, The Looking Glass, for your comment.

When commenting - and please do! - be constructive, honest, fair and open. Say whether you have any particular knowledge of or affinity for this genre / age-group, either as writer, editor or avid reader. We don't necessarily expect all comments to agree so if someone says something and you disagree, do say so. It will be up to Sarah to work out how to interpret and value your comments. These have been very successful in the past and writers have unanimously benefited, so you all have a lot to live up to!

Over to Sarah...
Dear Ms. Morgan,

            They lived happily ever after.  Of course they did.  Cinderella was beautiful and Prince Charming actually enjoyed attending the ball.

            This time, the heroine isn't the loveliest lady at the ball, and the prince dances with her alluring second cousins instead.  This time, a country's romantic custom becomes the center of a plot to steal the throne.

            The Looking Glass is a 95,000 word YA novel that begins a century after King Richard of Eiden fell in love with a maid when he returned her dancing slipper.  Now royal balls are part of Eiden's traditions and one of Prince Philip's chief annoyances.

            After her parents' deaths, Elsbeth moved from the Lowlands to live with Lady Augusta.  Lady Augusta believes that with enough training, plain-looking Elsbeth could be almost as admired as her own two daughters.  After a humiliating experience at her first ball, however, Elsbeth decides she'll attend the next one her own way.  Lady Augusta can't pick her partners or monitor her conversation if she can't find her.

            As Elsbeth hides on the edges of the three-night ball, she discovers part of a plot that could cost Prince Philip the crown.  The future of Eiden will be decided at the ball- by a girl who didn't want to be there in the first place.

            I'm a member of SCBWI and participate in a critique group.  The Looking Glass is my first novel, and I'd be happy to send you the manuscript. Thank you for your time.

Chapter 1

The tables in the low hall of the Underwall Inn overflowed with merchants ready to display their wares at Taylan’s Fair. Few men spoke, however, as Elsbeth finished her story. For a heartbeat, silence stretched across the room. Then someone shouted from across the hall.

“Elsbeth, you changed the end!”

Elsbeth came back from that world between the story she’d told and the crowded room before her. She half-smiled and called to the leather merchant, “I always change something, Nigel! You never complained before.”

“You never mucked around with one of my stories before!”

Elsbeth scowled for the crowd’s benefit. “Your story? You told me you heard it from one of your tanners.”

“A tanner, Nigel?” called someone over the laughter in the room. “We like our Elsbeth’s version better!”

Already the room echoed with dozens of conversations spoken in at least four languages. She had told one tale earlier that evening, but the men had coaxed her into telling one more. It was the last tale she’d spin at the sUnderwall. The knowledge weighed on her, and she sensed the others felt it as well. They had stopped heckling Nigel.

Before they could request another story, she walked towards the table nearest the kitchen hallway. Lady Augusta’s three men had camped there all evening, their livery setting them apart from the travel stained clothing of the merchants. Still, one could have told they weren’t merchants without the livery. The footman nervously eyed the curved knife of a passing merchant, and the man who rode as guard remained stone-silent. Only the coachman, with his endless appetite, occasionally nodded at those who walked past.  They were her first glimpse of the High Valley. She felt her heart sink a little as she watched them, and realized she had hoped friendlier men would escort her there.

She glanced again at the door on the far end of the hall. He still hadn’t come.

            “Miss Elsbeth…” Sadie, one of the Inn’s servants, appeared before Elsbeth reached the men. In her nervousness, the poor girl had all but knotted the rag she used to wipe the tables.


            Sadie gestured at a table of scowling merchants from Ermion. “Them from-” she faltered over the foreign name, “Er-mee-non declare they will not eat the stew Mistress had the kitchen prepare. They say they’ll leave. And if they do, Mistress will…” the girl shook her head miserably.

Elsbeth knew Marion, wife of the Inn’s new owner, wouldn’t hesitate to make good use of a cane across Sadie’s back. She caught the gaze of the irate merchants, and held up a finger, asking them to wait. Jin’s face lost some of its sternness when he recognized her. He nodded his approval, and said something to the men at his table.

Elsbeth touched Sadie’s shoulder. “Come with me.”

Elsbeth stopped just inside the kitchen to see if Marion was there. She wasn’t. Of course she wasn’t. The sharp-faced woman rarely entered the kitchen, lest the meal’s odors cling to her new, fine clothes.
Over to you...

Thursday, 29 April 2010


I've blogged before about the misconceptions that non-writers (and often aspiring writers) have about being a writer: what it involves and why we do it. These misconceptions feed into the conversations we find ourselves trapped in and often irritated by, and if you're hoping to be published you need to be prepared for these conversations.

So, my post today is not about how to get published, or wishing to be published, but about being careful about what you wish for, and being ready for it.

Two things I'd like you to do.

First, read this post here - long-time readers of this blog will remember it.

And second, head over to Strictly Writing, here, where you'll find a fabulous video made by Caroline Rance.

And as a little extra, but unrelated to the message, you might like to watch the video I made last year with the same software. It's great fun to use and is even free.

I have another misconception for you on Monday, which is a Bank Holiday in the UK. And no, the misconception is not about the sun always shining on bank holidays, though that's one as well. You want a clue? It's also the reason why my blogging has slightly gone off the boil temporarily. That and the fact that I don't currently have a desk or any peace at all.

There's another clue here:

Monday, 26 April 2010


There's a flash fiction competition announced today over on my new blog for Wasted - see here.

That's all! I thought you'd like to be involved - you are all writers, after all. I had a Flash Fiction comp on this blog a while back and you seemed to have a good time and produce some great results, so I thought I'd re-run it and kill two birds with one pebble.

Did I ever write a shorter post? 

My point exactly.

Saturday, 24 April 2010


There are many ways not to hook an agent but today we are talking about just one: the ill-considered use of a middle-person to make the approach for you, even if the approach includes a glowing report on your book. I have just had a message from an agent telling me about a submission she's just had.

First mistake: it began, "We write on behalf of our client..." NO! Avoid outfits that claim to offer your MS to a whole raft of agents and publishers together. Knowledgeable agents want to hear from YOU, not some cowboy crew who think they know about publishing. Your approach must be personal and tailored if you want proper publication with a real publisher and a great service from a genuine agent. The exception is if the agent already knows and respects the opinion of the sender of the letter, but they will attach no importance at all to the recommendation of strangers.

Second mistake: the website of the outfit sending the letter had basic errors. (Not that the agent got as far as looking, but I did.) Dodgy punctuation, dull writing, no evidence of real knowledge or passion, and a claim to use a "published author!" - their exclamation mark, as though finding a published author to help them was such a big deal. If the person making the recommendation writes such dull English and fails to understand how publishing works, why should the agent trust the opinion of said person?

Third mistake: before describing the MS, the organisation offered boring and irrelevant info about its "client's" background. When offering a novel, background is irrelevant unless it happens to be relevant. If the people in this outfit don't know that, they don't know anything.

Listen at the back, please. Stop fiddling and pay attention. If you're a writer and you have a publishable book, do not demean yourself by getting someone to present your book to an agent on your behalf. By all means quote a genuine endorsement if you have one that means something, but don't use a third party that the agent hasn't heard of. Using a third party may seem professional to a novice, but it isn't. It's just not how publishing works. Publishing works very simply: professionals (agent and / or editor) love your book, believe it can sell and know how they would sell it; said professionals sign you up, buy the rights (well, the publishers do) - and buy means PAY FOR - and put their company's money into marketing, distributing and selling your book, passing on a % to you twice a year. You do not need any other middle people. Yes, you can have other people helping by giving feedback, either informally or formally, but once your book is ready to send out, you must do this yourself if you want to gain respect.

Sometimes writing consultancies do offer to present your book, if they feel it's good enough, to agents or publishers with whom they have contacts. Sometimes this is OK, but only if the consultancy is a quality outfit with genuine connections.Unfortunately, too many are not, and some are now getting themselves a bad name for giving over-glowing reports on dud MSS.

My consultancy (Pen2Publication) does NOT offer to submit your work to agents or publishers for you. However, if I came across an MS which I felt was ready and suited to an agent or publisher of my acquaintance, I might create an opening and / or endorsement, but that would be all. I don't advertise that fact because it's rarely going to be the case and I don't want to raise hopes. Also, I know very well that most agents worth their salt want to be approached directly by the writer and if the work is good enough my opinion won't be needed. I certainly would never make the approach for a writer and I would not recommend any writer to use that method.

You're a writer: write your own letters. Get genned up on publishing and do your research. Write the best book you can and stand up for it yourself. Getting someone else to submit your work is NOT the best way to impress an agent or publisher. Trust me.

Thursday, 22 April 2010


Indulge me while I hijack my own blog briefly, please. See, it's that time of year again: book promo time. As in mine. Not the one I mentioned yesterday - I haven't written that yet. (Note to self: DEADLINE.) But the one that's published on May 3rd.

All I'd like to say to you today, in a calm, subtle and measured way, is that some of you may not know (if you've been asleep) that I have a new blog starting, especially for the new book.

Ahem. I've just committed the first mistake of an author with a book coming out. Did you notice? Basic, absolutely damned basic.










First rule: mention name of book at all opportunities

So, the book is called WASTED. Some of you have already read it and everyone who has commented has amazingly loved it. The latest fab comment / review is here and my publishers say there's a terrific buzz about this book, which has come from readers, not any clever tricks by marketing people. Readers have more power than anyone in the writing and publishing process.

Anyway, you need to know that I am about to go on tour till the end of May, but fear not: I will still be here, by magic. Yep, it's a blog tour, so I will still be here for you and this blog will experience no hiatus. I would not leave you, really. You will find me all over the place, thanks to the fabulous organisational skills of my charming new assistant, Catherine Hughes, she of this blog's readership. (Check out her own blogs here and here, btw.)

And the blog is here. I mention it today because it launches properly tomorrow and I'd love you to be there. Sign yourselves up as followers and you get a weekly chance to win a copy of the book. Or just pop by each day for entertainment and enlightenment - a new post every day. During the next few weeks there will be many opportunities to win books - some of them requiring skill (writing competitions) and some pure luck. See, the book is all about luck, chance, randomness, fate, risk, causal determinism, and the odd spot of quantum physics.

There's something for everyone. Well, not everyone. Not people who don't like a challenging, different read. Not people who don't like to think. And not people who don't enjoy a good time.

I have written a post for every day for the next six weeks. A flipping marathon, but Catherine is a hard task-mistress.

Now, I have one small thing to ask. If by any chance you end up reading Wasted, and if by any chance you like it, could you please say so, kind of a little bit loudly? Possibly even on Amazon? (And if you don't like it, could you possibly be very, very, very quiet?)

Whatever, please join me over on the blog. I'd love to get 100 followers before launch day.And Catherine would be pleased with me, which is quite important, too.

THANK YOU! And sorry for giving you no publishing advice at all today.

Monday, 19 April 2010


Despite being a crabbit old bat, I have an unnatural sympathetic streak which cringes when people are found out for their bad behaviour. It's embarrassing.

BUT behaviour like this REALLY pisses me off. I have never read Dr Rachel Polonsky's books and therefore have no opinion as to their wondrousness, but she did not deserve to be rubbished by someone disguising the fact that she was the wife of a rival. If her books are bad, and if you think so, you should either say so under your own name in an accountable fashion or shut the hell up, frankly.

I have also had very weirdly vitriolic bad reviews on Amazon, from people saying things like "worst book I've ever read" and signed by "Bob Geldof", who, frankly, I think has more important things to do than review my teenage books. I'm sorry but if my books are the worst you've ever read, you haven't read many. Consequently, I now don't trust Amazon and other online reviews unless it's clear who wrote them. (Or if they're good, of course, and about my books - then I KNOW they're true! Erm, not...) I have had some good ones, btw, lest you think I'm totally crap.

That's irrelevant. I just want to make a stand for integrity. Yes, I could go and write a stinking anonymous review for a rival's book. But I wouldn't. Why?

Because I wouldn't be able to sleep at night, is why. OK?

Have some standards. Your soul is at stake.

Sunday, 18 April 2010


You've all put up with enough of my moaning. There's been the failed heating system and need to replace ALL the pipework beneath the floors of the "new" flat. There's the broken oven, broken washing-machine (which flooded my legs as I tried to stem the tide), blocked sink, broken waste disposal, dripping taps, cellars full of appalling rubbish left by the previous owner, and the fact that when we arrived, the previous owner hadn't left. Nor had his possessions. And of course you had almost two weeks of me moaning about lack of internet access and how I was getting fat in Starbucks just so that I could get online.

Today I bring you the other side of the coin, because there is always another side. And this side is so spectacular that I feel ashamed for moaning. I bring you a story in pictures and you need to know that these pictures were all taken within a ten minute period on Saturday, beginning in my new back garden, all with my iphone.

I bring you the story to do two things: to turn the tables on my moaning and to show you where my inspiration is going to come from while I live in this flat on the side of fabulous Calton Hill, in Edinburgh. Calton Hill is what gives Edinburgh its name - the Athens of the North - and you will soon see why.

First, I stood beneath the palm tree in my garden and looked skywards.

Then I walked through our gate, into the amazing gardens owned by all the residents of this street and the next one. We all have keys, and each time I walk into these gardens I have to pinch myself. So does my dog, I think.

Through one of the gates and we're on Calton Hill. I offer no words to accompany the following pictures - they say it all. You may question how the weather could be so different within ten minutes but all I can say is that a) this is Scotland and b) we have 360 degree views from this hill so the pictures are taken in every direction, with the first one taken straight into the sun.

One lucky author and one lucky dog? To have this on our doorstep? Remind me never to moan again.

And the "gratitude" mentioned in the title? To you for putting up with two weeks of moans. This week I will be bringing you some proper writing / publishing advice and also a very exciting piece of news. But it's currently embargoed. Hehehe.

Thursday, 15 April 2010


You quite often ask "How long should my book be?" and I've been meaning to blog about this. Then I belatedly came across Linda Strachan's vg post on ABBA, on the subject of lengths for children's / YA books, and it reminded me of my negligence to you. Do go and read it and pay attention to the comments beneath it, which answer the questions that Linda poses.

Writers worry quite a bit about how long their books should be. And people like me worry quite a bit about how to give the right advice - because you want a straight answer, but the only true answers are quite wiggly.

As a writer in the arty sense, the truest answer I can give, though it's not the one you want, is that "the book should be the right length for the story." The story should fit beautifully inside the covers (whatever size those covers are) and the reader should not feel that you either spun it out or cut it short in its prime with a headlong rush towards the end.

As a writer in a practical frame of mind, however, I have to have some commercial considerations  in mind. These considerations are even truer for the unpublished author, who has not established an audience.

The first thing I'd say is that if you're going to look around to check out the lengths of similar books to yours, a) that's a very good idea indeed, and I hope you do, BUT b) do not consider the unusually short or long in this equation; and do not consider any books which had phenomenal success despite being extremely short or long. For example, if you're looking at the lengths of books for 10-12 year-olds, ignore the length of the Harry Potter books. Extremes and exceptions tell you nothing useful.

The second thing I'd say is that word count is a bit of a red herring. Yes, we have to use it because it's the only objective method we have, and agents and publishers need it. But publishers are perfectly capable of making a book look longer or shorter than it is - by judicious use of font size, font type and letter/line spacing. That's what they'll do, but unfortunately it doesn't help you because they do sometimes get quite hung up on word length at the acquisition stage. 

Here are some simple commercial considerations which publishers will be using and which you should therefore note:
  1. Each book will be costed at an early stage in the process - often at the acquisitions meeting which is also deciding whether to accept it. The cost must account for the number of pages to be printed. The price points of particular books don't vary as much as word length, and they have to compete price-wise: so the price cannot usually reflect the different costs of production between a book of, say, 300 pages and a book of 500 pages. Therefore, an over-long book which a publisher is unsure about is more likely to be rejected than if it was a standard length.
  2. Readers do sometimes consider the value of a book according to how long the pleasure will last. So, some readers will reject a book if it's too short, especially by an unknown author. I know that doesn't seem right, as a book's value is not related to length, but it's what many readers do, often subconsciously.
  3. Similarly, and particularly in some genres, a book that's too long may put readers off. This is particularly the case in children's writing.
So, what are the recommended lengths? Ah, now this is where it gets tricky. I can only be very vague because it really does depend on the specific sub-genre in which you are writing. Sagas and fantasy books are often much longer than other genres, for example. There is no substitute for good research here and my suggestion is as follows:

  1. Identify twelve books which you think would be your competitors - with the same readership. But do not include extremes (see above). 
  2. Remove what look like the two shortest and the two longest.
  3. Do a rough word count for each of the remaining eight: simply do an accurate word count for ten full pages in each and multiply by the number of pages. Make some vague adjustment for pages which only have a few lines on them.
  4. Is there a very large range? For example, is the shortest 90,000 and the longest 250,000? In that case, your genre is wide open and you don't have too much to worry about as long as you keep within that range. If they all seem a similar length, work out the average and try to stick to within 15-20% of that average.
(What about a novella? A debut author is unlikely to get a novella published. The reason is that readers will generally not take a punt on such a slim volume at a relatively high price-point. Sorry.)

As an enormous generalisation, because I sense that you want me to give figures, I'd suggest that a starting-point is that a novel for adults will generally be longer 100,000 words and a novel for teenagers will be less than that. My novels have ranged from around 42,000 (Mondays are Red) to 78,000 (the Highwayman books). When you hold them in your hand - which is what really matters to the reader, who has no idea of the number of words - Mondays are Red feels too short to me and the Highwayman books feel too long, especially since they are aimed at younger teenagers, including 10+. Despite that, they both did well, but I'll never know who was put off by the length of the Highwayman books.

In my opinion as the author and a keen book buyer, my new baby, Wasted, feels like the perfect length. Mmmm, beautiful - I'm still at the stroking stage, I warn you. It feels chunky enough to last a good number of hours, but not at all off-putting. It has 352 pages and contains something not much over 60,000 words. That's the target I've given myself for the next one, and it just "feels right".

Would you like to hold Wasted in your hands and see if you agree?? You can stroke it, if you like. I've had fabulous feedback from the advance readers, including booksellers, and I am offering a weekly draw over on the Wasted blog. All you have to do is register as a follower and you'll be entered each week. The Wasted blog is launched on April 23rd and from that day on I offer you a feast of info, snippets, competitions, stories of fate / luck / chance, and lots of ways for you to get involved. Head over there now so that you are with us when we begin the fun and games!

Tuesday, 13 April 2010


When I can't offer expertise in something, I find a person who can. So, to tell you about the ins and outs of writing picture books and novelty books, I turned to Anna Bowles.

Anna started in children’s publishing as an editor at Egmont, where she worked on Winnie-the-Pooh sequel, Return to the Hundred Acre Wood and the relaunch of Rupert Bear, amongst many other projects. Since going freelance two years ago she has done a stint as a Senior Editor at HarperCollins and written series fiction for Hothouse, in addition to operating as an independent consultant on children’s books. As an author of branded story and novelty books she has written about characters ranging from Barbie to Ben 10, and her books have sold over two million copies. Her next novelty publication is My Journey with Thomas the Tank Engine, due out in June.

Anna is available for consultancy and freelance editorial work. Visit  or check her blog for details.

Talking of Thomas the Tank Engine, I really ought to be an expert in this subject, having spent many a hallucinatory hour writing a series of these delights, but somehow I see only a blank space in my brain where sensible advice should be.

Anna, on the other hand, not only knows this stuff but manages to say it lucidly and remain sane.

NM: What do we mean by a novelty book as opposed to picture books?
AB: Novelty books certainly have pictures in them, but they aren’t picture books. Some writers can find this confusing, not surprisingly.
In publishing, the term ‘picture book’ specifically refers to a storybook (or occasionally some non-fiction) for children aged 0-5. It can be hardback or paperback, but it always has full-page illustrations and only a small amount of text per page. The standard format is something like A4, only more squarish.
Novelty books are a lot more diverse, and can feature anything from paper flaps to sound chips or other fancy additions. Quite often they are aimed at young children, but pop-up books for adults, for example, are still novelties. ‘Novelty’ is an umbrella term for any publication that physically consists of more than just flat pages and a cover.
NM: Is there a difference in whom we approach and how, in order to be published in these different formats?
AB: With picture books, the way to go about seeking publication is via the standard route of polishing the text as much as possible, and then trying to interest an agent or going directly to a publisher who has an open-door submission policy. Just make sure that the publisher or agent in question does in fact take picture books. Most will, if they deal with other kinds of children’s books, but check the small print.
Because of the physical elements involved, novelty publishing requires specialist knowledge and resources. Only a limited number of publishers are set up for this, and as a result a lot of novelties are originally produced by book packagers, although you might not realise this from the finished project as it will have the publisher’s logo on the spine. A packager is a company that writes and designs a book, then sells it on to a publisher which prints and distributes it. Many packagers are very small operations, with just one or two people on staff, so they’re open to using freelance writers and designers.
An agent is unlikely to take on a novelty book, except for an existing client, so if you have an idea for one your best bet is to approach a packager. They don’t generally have a profile outside the publishing industry, but you can find them in the Writers & Artists’ Yearbook.
NM: Can you outline the technical rules of picture book writing?
AB: Picture books are aimed at the 0-5s, and generally have 32 pages, about 24 of which are given over to the story and illustrations. The maximum wordcount for prose is usually said to be 1,500, though in my experience 500-750 words is considered ideal.

Picture Book Checklist
1) Concept - Is the action of your story comprehensible to very young children who probably have little experience outside home and maybe nursery?
2) Language level - Maybe not every word in your book will already be familiar to a three-year-old, but without making your text at all drab you should make sure that difficult words are kept to a minimum and presented in a context that helps the child absorb their meaning.
3) Sentence structure - This should be as simple and direct as possible.
4) Read-aloud-ability: flow - Picture books are meant for reading to children as much as by them, and it should be possible for an adult to pick up a well-written picture book and read it aloud straight out without stumbling.
5) Read-aloud-ability: flair - If you listen to a parent reading a picture book to a child, they often put a lot of drama into it. Onomatopoeia, lively dialogue and (limited) sound effects all help mum or dad to give a first-rate performance.
6) Illustrations: subject - No, you don’t draw them yourself (more on that below). But you need to think about how your story will work in visual terms. If it’s all set in the same place, for example in a child’s bedroom, you could have a problem because the illustrator will be hard-pressed to make that interesting.
7) Illustrations: spacing - You don’t have to know exactly where the page breaks will come in your text, but it’s good to have a rough idea, so that you can be sure there are no pages where the artist will be hard-pressed to find something to draw.
8) Editing - The usual advice about merciless editing applies tenfold to picture books. You can’t waste a word.
I’m assuming here that your picture book does have a story, but in fact not all do. Hooray for Fish! by Lucy Cousins, which lists different types of imaginary fish, is a favourite with toddlers and a great example of a picture book with virtually no narrative. I wouldn’t recommend the non-narrative approach to beginners though; it’s good to prove to publishers that you can write a story.
NM: And the technical rules for novelty books?
The most important issues in novelty publishing are cost and the ever-increasing raft of safety regulations. A case in point: I remember being handed a bag of crayons by Production and asked to tell them which colours I wanted for the crayon pack on the front of a book. I handed them all back five minutes later, having determined that the answer was ‘none of them’ because they physically didn’t work. The ingredient that would make the crayons actually function had become illegal in products for under threes, and been removed.
As a result of this kind of headache, novelty books often come about through a process of in-house brainstorming of the format, after which the text is written by an editor. However, the search for new formats, or innovative ways of presenting old ones, is an ongoing challenge, and if you come up with a really fresh idea it could well be of interest to a packager.

Novelty book checklist
1) Concept
Is the novelty element an integral part of your story, or just a bolt-on? The story has to be told through the flaps/pieces of cloth/LEDs or whatever it may be.
2) Mechanics
Is your book physically possible? You have to be able to visualise it very clearly, or you end up, for example, not realising that a die cut (hole in the page) on page 5 will of necessity appear on page 6 as well. It sounds obvious, but I know of a book that got to the sample copies stage before the editor twigged.
3) Affordability
As a very rough rule of thumb, a £4.99 children’s book will be able to have one expensive novelty element like a mirror plus some flaps and tabs, or two less expensive elements such as cloth and PVC.
4) Safety
Safety regulations are complex but you can guess the obvious ones, such as no small detachable elements for the under threes.
5) Variety
For budget reasons you may need to have the same kind of cheap feature – a pull-tab, say – on each of your five spreads, but the illustrations will still need to look substantially different from each other Your story should be written with this in mind.

Novelties don’t seem to get discussed much online, so to get a handle on the market a good idea is to do some extensive research in a bookshop, or seek expert advice if you can get it. The runaway success of the novelty world is of course the Usborne “That’s Not My…” series, so do take a look at them if you haven’t already.
NM: How do publishers go about matching books with illustrators?
Well, the key word there is ‘publishers’, not authors. Genuinely multi-talented author-illustrators are welcomed, but sending in a manuscript with illustrations by your friend, as some new writers do, only signals to editors that you don’t know much about the business.
An acquiring editor is likely to have strong ideas about the illustration style that would suit a particular picture or novelty book. She may take the project straight to a specific illustrator she has in mind, or get samples from a number of candidates. The writer will be consulted during this process, but it is a case of the publisher keeping the writer informed rather than the writer actively driving the process of finding and approving an illustrator.
NM: So many would-be writers start by writing a rhyming text, because we all know children love rhyme and that's it's a great way to engage them. Can you please set writers straight on this?! 
AB: Yes! In fact rhyme is a disadvantage. This is mainly because of foreign rights. To explain: rhyming text is more difficult to translate, so foreign publishers are less likely to buy the translation rights from your agent or UK publisher. That means editors see rhyming manuscripts as less likely to make money than prose stories.
That said, you will find lots of rhyming books on the shelves. The novelties are often written by editorial staff, and many of the picture books are by big names like Julia Donaldson, whose work editors are confident of selling on abroad in spite of the translation issue.
Some, though, are by first-time authors. Breaking into the picture book market with a rhyming manuscript isn’t impossible, it just adds an extra obstacle. So unless you are a very confident writer of verse, and you have a story that just doesn’t seem right in any other form (it happens!), I’d advise sticking to prose.
NM: What other big mistakes do inexperienced writers make?
AB: Most flawed manuscripts are let down by failure to deal with one or more of the points I’ve mentioned above. Plus a large number of manuscripts have a mishmash styles suited to various different ages, which immediately disqualifies them, or are overtly moralistic. If a book has a lesson at all, it has to be couched in, and totally shaped by, a fun story.
It’s also a waste of time to submit a manuscript that just goes “A is for apple, B is for boat” or “Bananas are yellow, strawberries are red” thinking that it’s an easy way to make money, although I’m sure no-one with the sense to read this blog would do that. If text genuinely looks so simple that you can’t imagine anyone being paid to write it then they probably weren’t; the editor did it.
Submitting a single manuscript can also be unwise, because someone who only writes one very short book won’t be seen as worth a publisher’s investment. If you’re working on 10 picture books don’t send them all, as a couple of them will be enough for a professional to make a judgement about your style, but do send two or three and mention the others.
NM: Any further advice, bugbears etc?
AB: collect bugbears! I’ve worked on a lot of TV tie-in novelty books and the thing that irritates me most is the assumption in some quarters that these books are automatically cheap and naff. Unfortunately some are, because of publishers looking to make a quick buck off the back of a trend, but it’s not actually necessary.
In terms of approaches from writers, I suppose the most frustrating thing is when someone seems to think that books are manufactured for free, and waxes lyrical about how a story will be enhanced by having glitter on one page, a pop-up on the next, then a mirror… ain’t gonna happen, much as we might like it to.
I find that it helps to think of the picture book format as a discipline similar to poetry, not because picture books have to be in verse but because they are relatively short and highly sculpted. Making that analogy helps fix a writer in the necessary frame of mind for the amount of fine work and honing that a successful picture book MS requires.
Anna, thank you so much for the huge amount of time you put into that generous advice! I hope would-be picture book writers will agree that it's been incredibly infornative, and eye-opening for anyone who thinks it's easy.

Writers: do check out Anna's website and blog:  / tells it how it is. Also, if you're thinking of contacting me through Pen2Publication for picture book writing advice, I'd be passing you straight onto Anna anyway, so just contact her direct. Cut out the middle-woman! (Not that I was taking any commission anyway, I hasten to add.)

Note, though: all this advice helps you avoid the practical errors that writers usually make. But much harder is actually coming up with the idea and then translating it into compelling tight writing. I have never even attempted a picture book story: MUCH too hard for me! Julia Donaldson is a friend of mine and I see the talent that goes into her work - pic books nay be short but they require very special skill.

Monday, 12 April 2010


Just about to be announced.

To remind you, I decided to celebrate passing the 500 follower mark by offering a free copy of Wasted to a randomly chosen commenter from the post where I announced the comp.

I thought I'd spin this out a bit but then I realised that spinning things out a bit is really not the best use of time for me just now, so I won't.












oh, I 've forgotten. Hang on.

It's Elen Caldecott! So, Elen, please email your postal address to me and I will post your signed copy of Wasted. Let me know who you'd like it signed to if not yourself.

And to the rest of you, better luck next time: sign up to the Wasted blog and you'll be entered for a weekly draw until the end of May. And if you win, do comment on the book - I need all the help I can get, as I'm really really worried this book is going to disappear into a dark hole. There are reasons for this worry, but I won't bother you with them. Just ask for your help! HELP!

Sunday, 11 April 2010


Now here is someone speaking sense. It's allied to the post I did recently on the dangers of being "published badly".

It's a tough message but in these days of easy self-publishing, it's really important for serious writers to look after their work properly.

Here's what I take from Joe Konrath's post and what I'd like you to copy out and place under your pillow, literally if necessary:
1. Just because you can easily self-publish an ebook (or physical book) doesn't mean it's always a good idea. In fact, it could well be a very bad idea. The dangers of self-pubbing an ebook are much worse than for a physical book: chances are that few people will see your physical book but your ebook will be much easier to sell and spread - which is GOOD, but only if it's good...

2. If your self-published ebook is crap, it will be ripped to shreds and your reputation will be materially damaged, ruining your chances of successful publication of any sort later. Unless you grow a literary beard of such proportions that no one will will ever recognise you.

3. Your self-published ebook almost certainly is not good enough if you have not had quality feedback on it. That goes for me, after many books published, just as much as it goes for someone completely unpublished. 
I am not against self-publishing, honestly. What I'm against is writers thinking they're ready when they're not, and thereby storing up huge disappointment and wreckage for later.

But Joe has much more to say and many more sensible, practical and honest tips, including how to get that feedback and make sure your writing is good enough. Go read - and let me go and unpack some more boxes.

PS - edited to add: this post was originally written before I moved house, when I thought it was just going to be a matter of unpacking boxes and then filing my nails. OH GOD HOW WRONG I WAS! As many of you will know from my anguish on Twitter, I find myself broadbandless and therefore unable to edit posts and comment etc. So, how come I am editing this post?? Because, sound the trumpets, I AM IN STARBUCKS. 

Anyway, I'm very stressed and overwhelmed. I have massive deadlines and tasks to do, and I can now only do them in a café, which is better than nothing but not ideal. On the other hand, maybe I could be the new JK Rowling? That would be nice.

Meanwhile, I haven't been able to use the lovely fact of being shortlisted for the Author Blog Awards, or do anything to promote Wasted. I haven't been able to use the fabulous comments I've had about it so far. And this coming week is the week of phoning plumbers, electricians, joiners, floorers, not to mention my agent and publishers to ask for help. To yell for HELP, to be precise. Meanwhile, thank you to the wonderful Catherine Hughes, who has been a voice of calm and efficiency. I would be nowhere without her. (She's being my assistant for the blog-tour for Wasted.)

Apparently, AOL are deigning to re-connect my broadband account (which I am still paying for) on Weds. After that, and when everything I fully sorted, I plan to dump them, as they have been massively less than helpful. Any suggestions as to who is best to sign up with? 

When I am "in a better place", I will reward you all for your lovely support, but meanwhile I need some more time before I can be back to full blog-power. I will be back. Actually, I will be back tomorrow to announce the winner of yesterday's free prize draw for Wasted. Meanwhile, don't forget to become a follower on the Wasted blog if you want a weekly chance of a free book.

Off to drink some more coffee - thank you, St Starbuck.

Thursday, 8 April 2010


Really, I do talk utter shite sometimes.

As you know, I have just moved house. (Have I said this?) And I do not, as yet, have broadband - until AOL get off their posteriors and activate the request I put in a long time ago. So, what with that and being up to my ears (almost literally literally) in paint, and having a blocked sink, failed heating system and a number of other tribulations, I do not really have time to write a blog post and then delete it. On purpose.

But I had to, because it was utter shite.

I was trying to talk about how and why I'm uncomfortable about prizes and shortlists for things. But then I realised I was talking out of an inappropriate orifice and gave myself a talking to from the correct one. This is essentially what I said:

"Listen and be grateful, you stupid old bat. After all, it's not exactly often that you get shortlisted for something that actually, according to a lot of people who keep emailing you, might be rather special. For crying out loud, you fool: Neil Gaiman and Paulo Coelho are on the same shortlist."

I then, of course, replied to myself, "WHAT??? Are you serious?"

See, when I first heard that I was shortlisted for Author Blog Award, I had my arm up a blocked sink pipe, and I didn't take much notice. Then people started emailing me and someone said it was on Book2Book and Bookbrunch. And still I didn't really register, because by then my arm was fiddling around in a cooker that wasn't working.

And then someone else said something about Neil Gaiman and Paulo somebody and I hit my head on the corner of a radiator that I was trying to bleed. By then I felt a bit dizzy and thought I'd woken up to find it was all a dream. Besides, I had failed to locate the boxes marked "shoes and boots", despite there being many of them. So, I really wasn't too interested in Neil Gaiman. (Though I love his books - grovel, grovel - especially The Graveyard Book.)

By the time I decided that this shortlist was even more interesting than the inside of a wardrobe that I was by then trying to re-erect, I couldn't get online anyway so I still have very little idea what this is all about. But I agree that it sounds lovely and I am grateful indeed. (Even with the absence of boxes of shoes.)

The kind organisers sent me an email and said I should ask people to vote for me, but there's no way I'd do that. They suggested I put the logo on my blog but I can't, because the connection is so fragile that if I go to get the link I'll cause untold damage. They also said I should spread the word about the awards, so I am at least doing that.

Anyway, I'm just going to say thank you to whoever nominated me, and to those who have emailed me with lovely comments and to the hard-working people who have organised the awards. And to anyone who has already voted for me, as I know some of you have.

My original post tried to unpick why being shortlisted for things causes me angst and discombobulation. (Not that this often happens, you understand.) I can't really explain. I guess this is just me. I had a strange upbringing, which I may tell you about one day, and competition played an unpleasant part in it.

Anyway, forget the discombobulation: I am hugely grateful to whoever came up with this idea, and those who nominated me, even if I do now have a bump on my forehead which is going to be hard to explain (the bump, not the forehead) when I face a serious audience this evening at the Wellcome Foundation, where I am chairing an event for which I am not prepared. Unless they ask me to unblock a sink, of course. I am very prepared for that.

Oh, and one other thing, is the prize chocolate or sparkly wine? Because if it is, I may well have to discard any residual discomfort about such things and ask you to VOTE FOR ME!

PS - When this post goes out, I will be on a train so I might actually be able to get broadband. Off to London to chair the above event. Impeccably bad timing two days after moving house. Back on the sleeper. Mainly, I am leaving my family to deal with the blocked sink, lack of broadband, lack of TV, and stinking eggs in the cellars.

PPS - NEWS FLASH: I found the shoes and boots! AND, to celebrate that and the fact that I just passed 500 followers - no, I don't mean I passed them: that would be rude. I just mean I passed the 500 mark  -  I am going to offer a free copy of my new book, WASTED, to a randomly picked commenter to this post. (As in THIS post, not the Wasted blog - but if you also sign up as a follower to the Wasted blog, you'll be entered in the weekly prize draw AS WELL.

I may talk out of my posterior sometimes, but I'm generous, I think. And you don't even have to vote for me. Unless there's chocolate or sparkly wine at stake.

Off to unpack shoes and put them all in a pretty line. Or two.

Please forgive any typos - you have no idea of the screaming that has been going on in this office while I have battled against slow and erratic connections and I am not damned well going to open the doc up again to check it. So there.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010


Since I'm not really here - in new flat and probably without internet connection and up to my ears in paint pots - I thought I'd bring you a fabulous website of resources for writers. (By the way, I wish that was me on the left. In my dreams. Not that blonde women appear regularly in my dreams but you know what I mean.)

Iain Broome, the ever helpful man at Write for Your Life, set up this resource, Websites for Writers.

Write for Your Life also has loads of excellent articles. Dip into a few. I particularly like this one about why you shouldn't listen to people who say you have to write every day. Mainly because I agree with what Iain says, which is always a start to liking something. Lots of people disagree. But why should the fact that writing every day is what works for you make you say that it must work for everyone else? I certainly don't write very day (apart from emails and blog posts) and if I thought I ought to I would find that pressure very unhelpful. But if you like it, fine. Go for it. Why would I care how often other writers write, as long as what they write is great?

Iain knows about succinctness, and I'm going to take a leaf out of his book.

Goodbye! How succinct was that!

 Oops, sorry - dreaming again....

Tuesday, 6 April 2010


Life is not easy right now. I am in my new flat, but "new" is relative. It's old, and it shows. The heating doesn't work, the sink is blocked and there's no sodding broadband. I am covered in paint and I will never ever install a roller blind on a wonky wall ever again. Ever. Even for chocolate.

However, I mustn't moan. I will, but I mustn't.

Nevertheless, I am unerring in my generosity because, even in my time of unbroadbandedness, I can offer prizes. And I can, and indeed must, do the book promo thing. For I must not forget that I Have A Book Coming Out Shortly. 'Tis called Wasted. And I am creating a new blog especially for it.

Also, you may be interested to know, I have enlisted the professional skills - and they are considerable - of one of your number, Catherine Hughes (@catoninetales on Twitter) to organise me and my blogging.

So, Catherine has just reminded me that I am supposed to tell you that I am offering prizes, randomly, to followers of the new blog. Once a week, I will select a follower - with the traditional name-from-a-hat method - to receive a copy of Wasted to be sent to a UK** address. Please pass the message round! Honestly, I need all the help I can get, broadbandless as I am, and covered in paint and detritus from the kitchen sink which I tried to unblock. And did I tell you about the rotten eggs? No, well, that was kind of me.

CHANGE OF PLAN: anywhere in the world!!

Anyway, if you'd like me to stop moaning about rotten eggs and sinks, please pop along to and sign yourself up as a follower.

The blog doesn't fully start till April 23rd, but prizes start before then. They will start as soon as I have unblocked my kitchen sink. Or until, more likely, I have phoned an emergency plumber.

Saturday, 3 April 2010


I bring you happy news, though it won't be news to some of you. Tomorrow is the long-awaited first publication day of Hope Against Hope, the debut novel of one of my most lovely and intelligent blog-readers, Sally Zigmond. I wanted to interview Sally because she has so much to teach us about perseverance, focus on craft, and the roller-coaster ride from idea to publication. This is a story of frequent heart-ache but ultimate triumph. Sally is also incredibly modest and in my opinion she needs people like me to give her a big shout-out. I have had her book on order for eleventymillion months from Amazon and I can't wait!

Sally also has a blog especially for her book, as well as The Elephant in the Writing-Room, her other blog about writing.  

NM: First, can you give us a sense of the book, in a nutshell? If you were going to pitch it now, what would your pitch be??
Gulp. I’m not very good at this. It’s a big novel—about 130,000 words—so we’re talking coconuts rather than hazelnuts. But here goes…

Hope against Hope is an historical romance. It’s the story of two young sisters, Carrie and May. Having been forced to leave their home in Leeds they travel to Harrogate where Carrie is sure they'll find work. Once there, they are deceived into parting company. Carrie remains in Harrogate but May ends up in Paris. Both believe the other is at fault, each is determined to erase the other from her memory. Both achieve success but it comes at a price. Neither can be totally happy until they find each other again--but fierce pride and hurt stand in the way.

It's also about two friends. Alex is a happy-go-lucky engineer, too busy in the boom years of Railway Mania to dwell on the past or worry about his future. Charles is a doctor but with no love or aptitude for the profession, He despises himself.

The relationship between these four people and the way their lives interconnect is at the heart of the novel. But life isn't just about love. The novel is also about Harrogate's rise from an eccentric collection of bathhouses, inns and wells into a highly-respected Victorian Spa. It's about the railway-mania of the 1840s, the development of the nineteenth century from debauchery to Victorian Values. It's about Paris in February 1848, a city trembling on the verge of yet another revolution.
N: Can you tell us about your journey towards acceptance by a publisher?
I’ll start with a warning. Don’t try this at home. I did everything wrong from start to finish. I wasted far too much time. I spent a lot of time doing absolutely nothing. I went up far too many blind alleys.

Basically, after about 10 rejections, I had a phone call from an agent who said she ‘loved it’ but could I shorten it? This I did and she still ‘loved it’ but her boss didn’t, so she asked me to write a completely different novel set in the 1920s (because she said they were more popular than nineteenth century novels.) Not knowing better, I did as I was told. [I think we all would - NM] After all, it was a very prestigious agency. The new novel took me about a year. This she also ‘loved’—after a major rewrite because my heroine married the ‘wrong’ man. [As many have before... NM] She submitted it to various editors—which I now realise were the wrong ones. Being naïve and inexperienced, I hadn’t realised that the agency only dealt with very commercial fiction and that the agent had sent it out to popular saga editors even though she agreed I didn’t write sagas. ‘You’re much better,’ she said! Naturally, the saga editors rejected it on the grounds that it wasn’t ‘gritty’ enough and they were waiting for the drunken stepfather or the rape. I heard no more from the agent and I didn’t pursue the matter.

So now I had two unsold novels. I started to write a third, got despondent and lost confidence; then after a year or more decided to send the first novel to an editorial consultancy.

It so happened that the reader they sent it to was a top-notch editor at a big publishing company. Her appraisal was wonderfully enthusiastic and detailed and what’s more she said she would read it with a view to publication if I made the changes she suggested. Which I did. I’m not daft. However, this took me far too long. By the time it was ready, time had moved on and she was no longer able to publish it because she had taken on her full quota of ‘new authors’ that financial year and she wouldn’t be allowed another. [Yep, I'm afraid that's how it works - NM] Yes, she could have been lying to avoid having to tell me my rewrite was crap or she’d gone off it, but I don’t think so. She talked to me on the phone for over an hour ending up with the promise to read anything I wanted to send her in the future. (But again, I realise she was looking for saga-type novels and although I wouldn’t dream of knocking the genre, I just can’t write them.)

I then collared another top editor at a writers’ event and she agreed to read the full manuscript. She, too, was very encouraging, asked for a rewrite—but still rejected it. [Gah!]
Over five years of my life came and went during all these rewrites. So, by then, I was thoroughly disheartened. I told myself it was time to forget the whole damn thing and write something totally different, when I heard about an exciting,  new,  independent publisher and thought I’d give it one last go…after all, what had I to lose?  But I wasn’t hopeful.

Guess what? He said he loved it and offered me a contract! And an advance—small—but still an advance. [Hooray!]
NM: I gather that from that point to publication was not, erm, exactly a smooth ride - can you tell us what happened?
I signed the contract in early 2008 and publication was pencilled in for early 2009. When, wham! The credit crunch hit. My publisher made the brave decision to put the brakes on for 2009 and not publish anything new. I was given the option to pull out of the contract—but as things were so close to the finishing tape (cover design, edits and proof reading) and I liked the publisher and the way he worked, I decided to sit it out. So here we are. [A statement that makes it seem so simple...]
NM: I have a journey of emotions during the writing and pre-publication stages of a book – do you know what I mean? And if so, tell us what range of emotions you have gone through and where are you now?!
I do know what you mean. I’ve told you the sorry saga and even now I change hourly from total euphoria to awful black thoughts that everybody will laugh at it and think it’s total rubbish; that it’ll be stuffed full of typos or continuity errors, even though it’s been scrupulously edited and copy-edited by professionals. I fear no-one will buy it, wish I’d never bothered. Then I pick up one of the glossy bookmarks and flyers with the lovely cover and name on them and have to pinch myself because I can’t believe that very soon, too soon, my novel just might spend a short time stocked by a bookshop somewhere. And then I think of the days I used to spend when I worked in a bookshop grabbing tatty old copies of languishing unsold books that had been designated for return to the publisher…and so on and so forth.
NM: Has anything surprised you so far about being published (almost?!) Is there anything you wish you'd known earlier?
I wish I’d not let myself be steamrollered by an agent that wasn’t right for me, lovely as she was. I wish I’d had more confidence in myself and more courage to stick to what I believed in. I wish I hadn’t been slow. Taking too long probably lost me a publishing deal with one of the biggest publishers in the world. But then again, I am more than happy with my current publisher—who says he’ll publish my WIP if it’s as good as the first two chapters he’s already seen! There’s something to be said for a small, independent publisher. It’s good to be a big fish in a small pond rather than the reverse.
NM: What is your main advice for those still striving for their first contract?
Keep striving. Never give up. Believe in yourself but never get big-headed. And never stop trying to write better.
NM: And what are you planning to do on publication day / week?
Enjoy every single moment. After all, it may never happen again.
NM: Is the wrong answer, Sally - you're supposed to drink sparkly stuff and eat chocolate, Everyone knows that.

Now, there's so much to learn from that. And I'm sure lots of you will have different reactions, different things that chime with you. In some ways, this story illustrates the vagaries and nonsense of publishing. On the other hand, it also shows that quality will win. But all the stuff about Sally having an inappropriate agent, through no fault of her own, and often missing the boat through no fault of her own, tells you one other very important thing: you've got to be in it to win it - you have to keep sending, keep learning, keep writing and keep improving. Sitting around whingeing about life being unfair will get you absolutely zilchwhere.

Go, Sally, go!! I wish you all the luck in the world. I know you deserve it.


Thursday, 1 April 2010


(NB: this is an April Fool-Free zone, I promise. I'm not in the mood today, and you may guess why later on in the post, if you don't already know. And crikey, I've talked about it enough...)

So, crime fiction post, here we go.

Crime fiction is a hugely popular genre and includes many different sub-genres. It's changed a lot over the years, too, so what used to work and what you remember working may no longer do so. As ever, you have to read in genre and focus on what's being published now if you want to attract a publisher.

I'm not an expert in the subject, from a writer's viewpoint. Yes, I did write a YA thriller, Deathwatch, which would fit the category. In fact, I feel driven to point out that bookseller, Vanessa Robertson, wrote on her blog: "Something that did strike me at the end was that Nicola is clearly a talented crime writer and it would be interesting to see her write a crime novel aimed at a grown up readership…" Oooh, now there's a thought! And yes, I do enjoy reading crime, especially the psychological types, such as Barbara Vine's deep and nasty ones, but I haven't kept pace with the huge leaps forward in recent years and don't feel qualified to enlighten you very specifically.

But I know a woman who is! My good friend and highly successful crime writer, Aline Templeton, has agreed to answer some questions. In return, I am delighted to push you over Aline's way if you haven't yet read her books, though I know many of you will have. She has many fans.

Aline has come a long way since, at the age of six, she wrote her first book, The Adventure of Mr Wiz and Mrs Woz. No cover available... I am terribly sad never to have the chance to read this doubtless thrilling oeuvre. After reading English at Cambridge, and then spending some years teaching, bringing up a family, and doing journalism and radio / TV work, she (Aline, not Mrs Woz) had her first novel published. Following that came a number of stand-alone novels - Shades of Death was the first one I read and I loved it, though it did nothing for my claustrophobia - before the launch of her current highly successful series, featuring the formidable DI Marjory Fleming, or Big Marge as she is called behind her back. Big Marge is a hugely engaging character, as she remains professional and yet caring while dealing with domestic dramas and the sometimes wayward behaviour of her Rabbie Burns-loving side-kick, Tam MacNee.

The most recent and hugely recommended one in the series is Dead in the Water, of which the Daily Record said, "A scalpel-sharp plot... Takes Fleming from strength to strength."

Before I ask for Aline's advice to you, I will copy a paragraph from her website, because it echoes what I often say: first be a reader in your genre, before you write in it.
"Why crime? Sometimes it seems strange to dwell on the darker, bleaker side of life, when my personal pleasures come from laughter and the love of family and friends. But it seemed natural to write what I enjoyed reading, and still when I'm writing a book to some extent I'm telling the story to myself as well."
I recommend that you read Aline's website, because there's a lot of useful stuff about how and why to create a series character, and many other aspects of crime writing, though Aline does not set out to preach or teach.

By the way, if you ever meet her, it's "short A as in apple" followed by "leen". Get it right - many don't!

Here we go. Oh, and by the way, I decided, for good reason, to schedule this blog post for April 1st, the day of entry to our new flat, sans furniture. The good reason: my husband and I will be having supper at Aline and her husband, Ian's house that day, no doubt with guffaws of laughter, as they are very valiantly rescuing us from our boxes and paint brushes. So, we will raise a glass to you as you read this and hope to see some comments or questions.

NM: I'm always cautioning writers to read current work in their genre. What changes do you see between crime writing years ago and now?  
AT: "From what is known as the 'Golden Age' of crime fiction - Sayers, Allingham, Christie, Campion, Dickson Carr and a dozen others - the crime scene has changed so much as to be almost unrecognisable.
It has always been a broad church, and never more so than now: cat detectives and the English village at one extreme, the pornography of violence at the other.Undoubtedly, the most successful novels now tend to be fast-paced, gritty and dark, but there's a strong following for the psychological thriller type too. The classic ingenious Agatha Christie solution has definitely fallen out of favour.

The crime novel has certainly moved closer in style to what might be characterised as literary fiction, using the device of murder to work through serious issues."
NM: What do you think are the ingredients of a good crime novel?
AT: "An absorbing plot which arises out of the nature of compelling characters. When you reach the end of the book you should be able to see that the outcome was inevitable - but you shouldn't have been able to guess what it would be!"
NM: Why crime? What draws you to it?
AT: "I enjoy feeling that as I write my readers are in the room with me. I constantly think of their reaction as the plot unfolds. I want to keep them guessing, but I don't cheat so if there's something I need to disclose I rewrite the scene, and rewrite it again - and again, if necessary - until I'm sure that while the information is there, it won't be recognised. Pulling off the conjurer's trick of misdirection is a particular pleasure.
"Of course, the most addictive part of crime-writing - and any writing, I suppose - is when the characters develop a life of their own and you find you are writing faster and faster, being drawn on by the story to see what happens next."
NM: What about gore and gruesomeness? How far do you like to go and how far is it necessary to go?
AT: "Where you stand on the scale of gruesomeness is a matter of personal taste. I don't like to read books with very graphic descriptions so I don't write them, and I have reservations anyway. In the first place, there's the problem that once you have done maggots and intestines, what do you do for an encore? In the second, with a hint, the imagination can construct horror much more effectively than any words you could write could. The Monkey's Paw by WW Jacobs doesn't give any detail, yet by the end you are in thrall to a nameless terror which I've never felt reading books where it's all spelled out.[NM: Oh gosh, I SO agree with you! I haven't read that since I was about 12 and I still remember the horror of that understated idea.]
"In fact, I sometimes think there should be a 'Bad Violence' prize like the 'Bad Sex' one; I have a regrettable sense of humour, and reading a book by one of the most successful horror writers left me in fits of helpless laughter!" [Yes, Aline, you do have a regrettable sense of humour but I'm delighted you do. She does, everyone - I have regularly been shocked.]
I'm going to quote something else from Aline's website, which goes to the motivation and craft of the crime-writer.
"The other great joy about writing crime is that we're in this together.  ... When I've written a crucial scene, I ask myself, 'What will the reader take out of this?' because you're a clever lot and you will guess there's a clue in there somewhere.  So then I rewrite it again, and again, until I reckon that the clue you pick up won't be the one you need to crack the mystery – though it's there, I promise! I don't cheat."
"What will the reader take out of this?" Exactly! How many times do I say that we're doing this for the reader, not for ourselves (even though we must enjoy it, too)?

Aline also talks about "constructing the puzzle", and this is another crucial thing about a crime novel - it must be well constructed and must incorporate puzzles and red herrings. Actually, even though I know that I never know the outcome of my own books in advance, I do wonder if real crime writers perhaps need more of a clue, so I asked Aline.
"Do I know in advance? I think I know, but I'm not always right. As the plot and characters develop, sometimes a balance changes, and another solution emerges. There was one occasion when I was nearly at the end and reading through the book I suddenly realised that the person I had thought had done it, hadn't! There was a much clearer and stronger solution, with an additional twist. So I wrote the new ending, then went back to make the mechanics work and to my astonishment, everything was in place. Apart from giving the real murderer a little more prominence, for the sake of fairness, I had nothing else to do.- a clear case of the unconscious mind and the conscious one not communicating.
"Mostly, though, I know where I want to start and I have a pretty good idea of what someone once called 'the clever bit at the end' and work towards it, but in between I really don't know what's going to happen.  When I have that middle-book panic, when I think it's just not going to work at all, I tell myself, 'Trust the story' - and so far it hasn't let me down." [NM: I know that middle-book panic and I tell myself exactly the same.]
Fascinating stuff, and it certainly resonates with me.

I then had a word with Allan Guthrie, another Scottish crime writer, who is also an agent with the Jenny Brown Agency. His Noir Originals website has a whole load of links that you'll find useful. I asked him about resources for crime writers. 

He said,
"There are a lot more online resources these days. For crime writers, is a must. It's an aggregator of most of the best crime fiction blogs. CrimeSpace, a social networking site with close to 3000 members, is well worth checking out too - I'd also recommend the networking opportunities provided by crime writing festivals such as Crimefest and the Theakston's Crime Festival in Harrogate"
If you'd like to buy any of Aline or Allan's books, do go to Amazon through this link, and you'll send a few pennies my way. I would then get down on my knees and gather every last one up and put them to very good use. I'd find a way, somehow.

So, there you have it - wise words and great resources. even so, nothing beats reading and reading analytically to work out what works and why a publisher said yes to these authors and might say yes to you.