Sunday, 30 May 2010


OK, folks - you know how this works now, I think. (If not, go back to SS 10 here).

"Margaret Dunlop" (not her real name) offers this for your consideration and she's being very brave in doing so, so please be fair but firm and imagine being in this position: you'd want to know the truth but you'd want it expressed constructively, sensitively and respectfully. Remember that for this I only ask for the letter plus the first 500 words - it's often not enough to judge a writer on, but it's important to showcase your work from the very first sentence, so it's still a valuable chunk to examine.

Dear Publisher [NB name would be here]

According to the Russian legend of the Fire Flower, the fern only blooms once a year, on the feast day of St John, June 24th at midnight. If you throw the flower up into the air it falls like a star on the very spot where a treasure lies hidden.

THE FIRE FLOWER is a book of 18,400 words for eight to twelve year olds. It is a drama/adventure story with important links to the past, both historical and legendary.

Twelve year old Asya is sent from war torn Grozny in Chechnya by her father to stay with her seventy year old great aunt Nadya. On her journey Asya is robbed of her money and passport but manages to reach her great aunt’s cottage on the Artists’ Cottage Estate in Barnet. This estate has been bought by a greedy and ruthless developer who is determined to evict all the old artists from their homes by illegal means if necessary.

Nadya has no children of her own and is at first appalled by idea of Asya interfering with her peaceful retirement, but she very quickly grows fond of her great niece and tries desperately to prevent Asya from being 'dispersed' by an bossy immigration officer to a detainment camp for asylum seekers.

Asya starts at the local school, which is attached to the nearby St John’s monastery, and there meets Sam an anxious, clever boy who is being bullied. They become friends and together find the exciting hidden treasure that reveals itself after a dramatic thunderstorm. This treasure will change all their lives and together with Sam’s bravery will bring about the defeat of the evil developers.

I am a published author/illustrator and this is my first book for eight to twelve year olds. I have previously written many texts for picture books, and have illustrated my own picture books, as well as illustrating books for older children by other authors.  I have a blog ******** and I am also on Twitter. I visit schools and libraries all over Britain.

Thank you for considering my story.

Yours sincerely
Margaret Dunlop


The Fire Flower
Chapter 1.

Moscow.   May 5th 1996

Dear Aunt Nadya
We have never met, but my mother often used to talk of you, when she was with us in Grozny, after my father died. She would reminisce about the beautiful mountain countryside where you both lived as young children, before the deportations.

Things are very bad now in Chechnya. When Grozny was shelled for the second time, our home was destroyed. For two weeks we hid ourselves in the cellar. Once the food and water was gone, we got out of the city, while the bomber planes were still flying over our heads. It was a miracle that we were able to reach Moscow.

At the moment we are safe, but I have decided that I must return to the hospital, in Grozny, as there are so few surgeons left. I cannot take my daughter Asya, back with me, which is why I am writing to you. I am sorry to give you so little warning, but life is too dangerous for her, in Grozny.

I have paid an agent here to arrange her journey. Can you remind Asya to telephone me when she has reached you in England.

Kind regards,

Your loving nephew, Ruslan Akhmatov

Asya had walked all night. When the men left her at the service station, she hoped at first that they might come back. She had travelled in one lorry all day, and another one all night. There was a third lorry after the Tunnel.  But when she had gone to the Ladies’ cloakroom, she had glanced back, and saw the two lorry men laughing, and looking at her. She didn’t like them. She had been in a hurry, so had left her knapsack, with all her money and her passport in the lorry, something her father had warned not to do. And when she came out of the lavatory, she saw that the lorry had gone.

So she began walking. She walked by the side of the main road. Cars passed by her in a blur of speed. ‘A1 North’, the sign read. ‘Barnet. Hatfield. The North.’ Barnet was where her Great Aunt Nadya lived. Asya remembered the full address - even the postal code. If she just kept walking she would get there eventually. She walked on and on through the night, until suddenly she smelt the fresh, green smell of grass and leaves. Then she knew that she must be leaving London behind her. The sun was rising. She had left the main road, when she saw the sign:  The Artists’ Cottage Estate. Asya’s English was good. She had won prizes at her school in Grozny. Attached to the main sign, was:  NEW DEVELOPMENT COMING SOON.  Immaculate Homes Ltd.

“Rossetti Cottage,” Asya murmured. By her great aunt’s cottage gate grew a large oak tree with branches that zig-zagged and curled.

 Great Aunt Nadya saw the child sitting on the wet grass, leaning against her tree.

“She is going to upset my life –Big Time,” thought Nadya.

Thursday, 27 May 2010


Let's talk about pace. The word is fairly explanatory. Speed. How quickly the plot develops. But it’s not as simple as that. For a start, not all types of book need to be “pacy” (fast) and not all types of reader require the same level of pace. “Pacy” is not necessarily a value judgement, either, simply a statement that this book moves quickly. Yes, many (most?) readers like a story to move sufficiently fast, but not too fast and not all at the same speed. Your reader needs to be able to breathe.

You must vary the pace, otherwise three things will happen:
  1. Your story will be monotonous and less enjoyable.
  2. Your story will be monotonous and you will look unskilled.
  3. The moments of climax and greatest tension and power will be less powerful.
The most important thing to say about pace is this: you must control it. This means that you must:
  1. Know what you aim to achieve with the overall pace of this book.
  2. Decide at which points in the story you want to speed up and where you want to slow down.
  3. Know how to achieve those effects.
Regarding the first point, this is a decision you have to make on your own, based on your understanding of your readers’ needs, the requirements of your genre and what is right for this book. Some types of book allow a slower build, and attract patient readers who are happy to delve into details; whereas others need a car-chase or murder every five pages. If you don’t know this about your genre and your book, then you have a problem which I can’t solve. So, bugger off and go and do some more reading.

WHEN to vary pace
You will need to build this into your plan. If you are a formal planner, you can make a physical note of the places where you want to create a change of pace. Or, if you’re like me and not a formal plotter, you will have to learn to get a feel for these moments.

And these moments are when, exactly? Usually, either just before or just after moments of great tension or drama. Here are some options:
  1. You have been building up to something, dropping clues, winding up the tension…and you take a breath, offering a slightly slower scene, trusting that your readers will stay with you, tormenting them slightly. This must be carefully handled because if your readers aren’t 100% with you, they may lose interest.There's only so much torment they'll take: judging this is part of the dark arts of being a real writer.
  2. You are building up to something (as above) and then pile in a fast, dramatic scene which the reader thinks IS the culmination but actually there’s MORE to come. So, a sprint towards but not quite at the end of an already fast race.
  3. After 2. you will certainly need to slow down.
  4. After several scenes of drama and Big Moments, you could / probably should slow down with a more gentle scene, before moving forward again into the tension.
So, HOW to vary pace?
1. Chapter ends and cliff-hangers
This is where I get to show you my patent breathing exercises. (Not for the first time, but some of you are new to this blog). And, more excitingly, where I teach you how to control your readers’ breathing. How amazing is that? That’s real power. You, the author, god in your own world, get to control a reader's breath.

Think of one chapter as one breath, in and out. Now, you can either breathe in first and then out, or the other way round, yes? First, try the in-breath first, finishing on a big exhale. It feels complete, doesn’t it? Well, that’s like a chapter that finishes at the end of the dramatic moment, with the tension released. The reader could stop reading for the moment and pick it up again later.

Now try breathing out first, followed by a big in-breath. Not complete, is it? You can’t stop there; moment of tension; what’s going to happen next? That’s like a chapter that finishes just before the crucial event, a cliff-hanger, the reader on tenterhooks. No way is the reader going to put the book down now.

Controlling your chapter breaks in this way is your most effective single tool for controlling pace. This was a revelation to me when I first discovered it. By varying the point in the action where you end your chapters, you control whether your reader will be likely to choose that moment to put the book down for a rest, or whether he will be compelled to read on. Of course, you are supposed to allow your reader to rest at some point, otherwise you risk exhausting him at the wrong moment, but you want him to rest at the time of your choosing. This is about control, which is probably why I love being a writer: I'm a control-freak.

2. Chapter lengths
The length of your chapters (or sections within a chapter if you have chosen that device) also affects pace. Clearly short chapters create greater speed, a kind of breathlessness. I use short chapters most of the time now; this is partly because in recent years I’ve written almost exclusively for teenagers, and they are very busy creatures who need extra work to keep them reading. A more normal method, and the one I’d use for writing for adults, would be to vary chapter length, using shorter ones for greatest impact and pace.

3. Sentence lengths
Again, short sentences create a faster pace and are very useful to create suspense. If you use them all the time, their ability to create suspense lessens. So, keep them for when you actually want them. (Short sentences have other uses as well, and suit certain voices, so it’s not only about pace.)

4. Sentence style and formality
If you are using a formal, strictly-grammatical style, accurately but self-consciously juggling your subordinate clauses and phrases, incorporating participles and absolutes like a descendant of Cicero, your pace will tend towards something slower and more considered than otherwise. However, do note that long, complex sentences do not suggest pace. While you can’t pepper a Woodhousian formality with the literary equivalent of a high five or Yo! Dude!, you will need to find a way to vary your pace by simplifying your complex sentences at the right moments.

4. Taking a break
After fast-paced sections, and after or before major climactic episodes, taking a break for a more gentle scene can improve your book in many ways:
•    It allows the reader to reflect, to process better what has happened or is about to happen.
•    It gives you an opportunity to show your characters in a different, more enriching light.
•    By providing contrast, it actually heightens the drama.
•    It allows your book to become multi-dimensional.

The first time I remember consciously doing this was in Fleshmarket. One of the (many) negative comments my irritatingly perceptive editor made about the not-very-good first draft was that it was relentlessly grim. Bearing in mind that this is a book about death, surgery without anaesthetic, blood poisoning, filth, poverty and dead bodies, I took this as a compliment but I also had to deal with it. So, one of the things I did was to take the two most down-trodden and abused characters up Arthur’s Seat one hot summer evening, where they made a fire and cooked steaks, breathing the fresh air and looking down on the distant grimness of Edinburgh. This offered the reader a break from the awfulness of what happened – and made the forthcoming horror even more horrible…. (Pause to rub hands in glee.)

So, that's pace for you. It's all more or less going into Write to be Published, but you read it here first, you lucky things. Besides, you have to wait a whole year for that to come out.

Sunday, 23 May 2010


Announcing a new blog baby! (A blog baby, by the way, is my term for someone who is already a follower of this blog when she / he gets a first publishing deal. It's by invitation only and I only look at writers who are picked up by a selective professional publisher, not a self-publishing facilitator. Nothing against self-publishing in the right circs, but it's not what this blog is about.)

I know Essie Fox from Twitter and was thrilled when I saw that she'd got her first publishing deal. I asked if she'd be interviewed as a blog baby and so, here she is. I wanted to unpick the journey to publication, hoping to uncover some advice for you lot.

Hello, Essie, and CONGRATULATIONS! Now that you've calmed down a little, can you tell us how you came to writing? I'm interested in whether you were born with a pencil in your hand, or what?
I started writing four years ago now. I’ve always been obsessed with books and, soon after leaving university, worked as an editorial assistant for the publishers, Allen & Unwin. But, my career took an entirely different path when, after the birth of my daughter, I decided to work from home, setting up as a commercial illustrator.

Many years later, when my daughter left home, I found myself wondering about what I really ‘wanted to do with my life’ and the answer was always the same – to write. I signed up with the Open University for a short creative writing course which was online, and lasted three months –
just long enough to give me the impetus and confidence to sit down and begin a novel.
In some ways, I wish I’d started to write earlier.  Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always had stories floating round in my mind – but I never quite equated that with actually setting them down on the page. There again, creating a story is a bit like illustration for me. You start off with a blank sheet of paper/screen full of hope and possibilities. There’s nothing like the thrill of beginning to make your own mark on the page, juggling with the tools of your trade to construct something real and logical from a tumbling jigsaw muddle of words. From that description, you’d be right to deduce that I tend to write by the seat of my pants, rather than being a planner. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.
Seems as though you were, in a way, practising in your head, rather than getting the words down on paper for many many years. That's an interesting start. So, what happened then? Agent? Publisher?
I wrote my first novel very quickly, in a rush of feverish excitement - another slight regret right now as I think it could have been better. Nevertheless, when I sent off my sample chapters to Blake Friedmann, they liked them well enough to request the full manuscript. Isobel Dixon, now my agent, helped to allay any anticipation and stress by reading the novel over the weekend – and emailing me during the process to say how much she liked it. 
OK, now I'm getting a tad jealous. You're going to tell me you got a deal straightaway, on that first novel? You mean there was no struggle?? No huge horrible re-writing?
With that first novel there was a little tweaking, but no major re-writing. [Snarl.] Even so, it failed to achieve a deal - [hooray!!] - always falling down at the hurdle of the publishers’ Sales and Marketing meetings – maybe something to do with it being mixed genre, and the fact that, if I described it now, I would have to say something like...a dark historical, gothic, supernatural, crime thriller, with a bit of twisted romance thrown in. Or, should I say one square peg forced into several round holes? [Good points and good analysis.]
What that ‘misfit’ experience taught me – apart from the fact that I still love that book and am determined to make it work one day – was that a mixed genre novel can be very hard to sell. If I really wanted to be a published author – and I really did – then I had to do more than simply write the book that only I might want to read. [OOOOOOHHHH - *falls down at the feet of Essie Fox and declares undying love*] I had to think of fitting within a specific genre and, with that firmly in mind, I began to write The Somnambulist – the novel that won my publishing deal.

The Somnambulist went straight out on submission and this time with no changes at all. But I will say that, on this occasion, I took a great deal more time over the plotting and editorial process, going over the novel again and again....and again...and again...and... well you get the idea. [More undying love.]
I am more than delighted that you came about this eventual success for all the right reasons. So, you fully deserve to have a fabulous moment of delight when you heard of your publishing deal. What happened?
I can honestly say that I wasn’t holding out much hope of achieving a deal and was wondering what to do with my life if The Somnambulist was rejected. All I wanted to do was write, but writing a novel takes a great deal of time and commitment and lures you away from so many other things in life – such as interacting with friends and family – or cleaning the house – or keeping fit.  So, while waiting to hear from my agent, I kept myself busy by catching up with everything that I’d neglected, and then by joining a gym (to try and shift the blubber gained while sitting around for months on end doing very little but writing). I made long overdue appointments for checks with the doctor and dentist and, it was while having a filling one day, when my mobile phone had been switched off, that I happened to miss several calls from my tell me that an offer had come in from Orion. [Hooray!] It was a Tuesday and I hadn’t even realised that the book had gone out on submission the day before.  It all happened incredibly quickly, and I still have to pinch myself to believe that I’m awake and not dreaming.
OK, excitement over. Can you tell us about the pitch for The Somnambulist? How did you and how would you pitch it? I'm always banging on about the importance of the hook - can you set us an example?
With both of my novels, I wrote a short and a long synopsis. In addition, for The Somnambulist, I sent in a ‘blurb’, or pitch, which began with a quote from the novel, followed by just two sentences...
‘Some secrets are better kept buried, some claims left unrecognised.’ The Somnambulist is a Victorian mystery set in the East London music halls and docks, and an isolated country house in Herefordshire. Suffused in colour and music, this dramatic and sensual novel deals with themes of loss and stolen lives, of racial and religious bigotry.
          And this is how my publisher, Orion, announced the novel to the trade press…
Sweeping from the boisterous Victorian East End music halls to a desolate Herefordshire mansion where a body lies buried in the woods, the story follows Phoebe Turner as she unravels a tangled web of family secrets. Haunted by visions of bloody footprints in the snow, Phoebe is forced to confront the darkness in her past in order to reveal her true parentage.
Kate Mills, my editor at Orion, said: 'I'm a huge fan of the classic Victorian ghost story and Essie Fox has given the genre a delightful twist. From the moment I began to read this, I was desperate to publish it. It's the most vivid and compelling story I've read in a long time, gloriously brooding and atmospheric. Peopled with music hall artistes, laudanum addicts, grieving widows and wicked half-brothers, Essie creates the seething underbelly of Victorian life. It's wonderfully commercial with shades of Sarah Waters and Diane Setterfield, but there are nods to Wilkie Collins and Charlotte Bronte as well. You can tell how much Essie enjoyed writing this story and that enthusiasm is utterly infectious. Everyone at Orion fell under her spell and we're very much looking forward to publishing The Somnambulist in hardcover in Spring 2011.'
Now, you haven't told us why Victorian? Are you immersed in the Victorian Period or would you write about other times? Is it history that gets you or that particular era?
I am absolutely fascinated by the Victorian period. I LOVE it. It was a time of amazing technological development and yet with such social extremes and constraints – particularly where women were concerned. For me, the era is close enough in time to be able to empathise with the people and, of course, the places – so many Victorian buildings still providing the backdrop to our lives, and so many events that happened then influencing our current society – not least how we are viewed internationally.
My own house which was built in 1840 has been a great inspiration and featured in my first novel. The Somnambulist came about after a visit to Wilton’s – one of London’s original East End music halls – such a magical, atmospheric place. Many of the scenes in that novel are based on other real places in East London. And those which occur in Herefordshire are set inside a stately home where, when a student, I worked as a cleaner.
My next novel will also be Victorian, as will the one after that – both of them very strong in my mind. But, one day, should fate spare me the time, I would love to write a contemporary supernatural mystery based on the life of John Latham, an artist who came to notoriety during the 1960’s and whose work was strongly influenced by the science of quantum physics. So, maybe a little time travel? But, for that, I’ll need to do a great deal more research, and hope to get my mind around some extremely complex issues! For now, I still feel I have only begun to scratch the surface of the Victorian era and, as much of the research that I do would otherwise be wasted, I recently started to write a blog which is called The Virtual Victorian. The VV would love to see you there!
Essie, thank you so very much - that was fascinating and useful. And huge good luck with the Somnambulist, published by Orion in May 2011.

So, what do we learn?
  1. Publishers ARE taking great stories and selling them with passion.
  2. Being immersed in the genre / era is essential for a writer.
  3. Professionalism, talent and hard work win the day.
  4. You cannot overlook the importance of writing something that publishers can publish because readers want it.
  5. You cannot keep a good writer down - IF she finds the right story to tell. And you cannot ignore a cracking story - IF it's been written well.
Go for it!

Thursday, 20 May 2010


In a rare turning of the tables - and arguably a dereliction of duty - I am asking you for help. Or at least the short story writers among you.

As you know, I'm writing a book based on this blog. I've just got to the section about short story-writing. Now, I don't need you to tell me how to write short stories, but about the market for short stories, both in the UK printed market and on-line (world-wide), and how you have managed to achieve some success in this form.

I do have my own answers to most of the questions below, but my knowledge of aspects of this market is a little out-of-date, especially in terms of women's magazines and also internet opportunities. So, I'd like to pick your brains.

Please note:
  • I am only looking for people who write for what we might call the "commercial" or "light reading" market, rather than the more "literary" end. (Sorry about these terms.) I already have several experts to talk about the literary market. So, if you write for coffee-break magazines, and focus on light fiction, I want to hear from you.
  • I also do NOT need to know any more about flash fiction - I have masses of stuff on that.
  • I need you to be quite serious about short story writing, whether it's your main type of writing or a side-line to something else. You'll see that some questions relate to paid writing and others to free online forums - both are relevant.
  • If I quote from you, I will acknowledge you. If I need to cut your words, I will contact you to agree the wording. 
  • It will not be possible for me to use all of your contributions and some of you will probably duplicate each other. I will try my very best to give credit to everyone who has helped.
  • Please DO pass this post on to anyone you know who writes short stories seriously.
  • Please only answer the question(s) that really apply to you. It would be much more helpful if you just made one or two points than try to answer everything.
  • Please indicate briefly in your comment what level of success you've had / in what type of magazines / how important this income / outlet is to you.
OK. Here are some questions I'm considering. Please take your pick.

RE having short stories published for publication's sake - ie without payment and probably on-line:-
  • If you do this, how often and what benefits do you see to it? Can you identify good results?
  • Can you name some good forums for on-line publication - preferably ones that aren't about to disappear into the ether?
  • Tips / risks?
Re writing for profit / payment:- 
  • Do you manage to place stories for paid publication reasonably successfully? Is your success rate erratic or have you developed a good system / found your niche?
  • What are the markets outside women's magazines?
  • Is the market for short stories in magazines healthy? Growing or decreasing?
  • How important is it in terms of income, or is it mainly for your writing CV and satisfaction?
  • How systematic were / are you in identifying the right magazines? Tips about this?
  • Do you have any short stories in published anthologies (printed or on-line)? How did this come about? Were you paid?
  • Anything else worth saying about the outlets / markets for short story writing?
  • Do you ever give up copyright or have you ever been asked to? Do you feel you know your rights adequately?
  • Have you used your proven success in short writing to gain a publishing deal for a full-length work?
Thanks, all!!

Monday, 17 May 2010


I've decided to re-post a very very early post, as it's become hidden in the mists of time but is as relevant as ever. I do not date. I may, however, age.

Actually, the first question is whether you could be agented. This is not the same as asking whether your work is publishable.

Understand how agents earn: by taking a % of your earnings. (Usually 10-15% and possibly 20% for eg film/TV/foreign rights, because they often pay a sub-agent). So, if you realise that the average advance for a children's book is £1500, you'll see why many agents don't take children's authors, for example. You are also unlikely to find an agent if you a) are a poet b) only have one or two ideas in you c) don't appear to have a commitment to a long career or d) are really annoying. (Because really annoying authors tend to earn less. With the exception of Mr ... But no, I don't know you well enough to say more.) Non-fiction can be hard to get an agent for - unless, again, it's likely to be very commercial. Essentially, you have to have the ability to earn dosh. And ideally have a perfect personality. And never phone on Sundays.

But back to whether you want an agent. Well, put it this way, I'm not about to get rid of mine, despite the fact that I've had many books published happily with several publishers. Why do I hang on to her? For many reasons:
  1. I want to spend my time writing.
  2. She would mediate between me and my publishers if I were ever to be pissed off with them. It's hard to imagine, but stranger things have happened.
  3. She knows what all the other publishers are looking for and can tell me when she thinks I'd be interested.
  4. If I want to write something different or approach a new publisher, she's best placed to handle that and to know who to go to.
  5. She understands all the boring bits of my contracts and knows what everyone else's contracts say and what things publishers can be budged on.
  6. She regularly meets all the publishers and also other agents.
  7. She will fight for me to get the best deal.
  8. She has foreign sub-agents and TV/film agents and has regular meetings with them.
  9. She goes to the trade fairs and tells people about my work.
  10. I can run a new idea past her and she can tell me if it's rubbish, before I've embarrassed myself.
  11. She is an honest and expert second opinion when I've written something, and can tell me what to change before I give it to my editor. So my editor thinks I'm brilliant.
  12. She can nag my editor. So my editor thinks I'm calm.
  13. She accompanies me to all publisher meetings. And plays bad cop. So everyone thinks I'm lovely.
  14. She knows everything about the market, and tells me. So people think I'm clever.
And all that while I'm dossing around at home doing nothing. Er, I mean writing.

So, you work it out for yourself. If you want to do all that, then do it.

BUT. You need to know what you can expect from an agent. Not all agents do the same, so when you're looking for one, you must ask what that agent can and won't do. Some agents do PR work as well, but this is not usual, so do not expect it. Just ask exactly what services you can and can't expect. I would also say do make sure your agent is full-time and professional, not just doing it as a part-time hobby.

Openness and honesty are very important. It becomes much much more than a business relationship and it can be tricky to tread the line between professional respect and friendship. I think I've been very lucky and I know many other authors who feel the same way (but some who don't). The main thing to remember is that your agent wants you to have the most successful career possible - because your success is her/his success. And income.

There are some authors who choose to have no agent and who manage very well. They are exceptional - either exceptionally clever and strong or exceptionally foolish.

EDITED TO ADD: you must do due diligence on your prospective agent. I have heard the most shocking stories of people setting up as agents when they haven't a clue how it all works. I've even had a writer tell me that her "agent" signed her up with a vanity publisher. Yes, really. I know, my jaw hit the ground, too.

I have written a couple of posts to help you choose an agent and avoid a dud one. Here and here. Go find!

Thursday, 13 May 2010


I bring you another brave writer's work for a Submission Spotlight. If you don't know how these work, do check out this post here. And perhaps read some of the other SSs (see the label for them on the right in the index of topics) so you can see how people comment.

NB to those on Twitter - if you like, you can also comment there, using the hashtag #submissionspotlight10 I will then transfer tweets here later for all to see.

This is from Penelope (not her real name). As always, note that a normal sub would require a synopsis and more than 500 words, but this is not what I've asked for so you should simply imagine them. Also, imagine that Penelope has put the publisher's name and the date, and correctly headed the letter, as she would have done. Finally, please ignore any oddities of layout / line breaks - I'm having problems with formatting today.

By chance, it's similar in age-range, market and genre to the one we had last month. Interesting to compare??

Dear Publisher,

The King is slain. Princess Tremorgan must embrace her destiny and free her brother from the enemy before it's too late.

TREMORGAN'S GIFT is a fast-paced YA fantasy novel, complete at 85,000 words. It is the first book in a planned trilogy. Please find included a synopsis and the first 50 pages.

Princess Tremorgan flees her home after witnessing the brutal slaying of her Father, the King of Agoria. Lord Drostan, her father's murder, wants the crown for himself and he'll do anything to get it. Pursued by Drostan's henchmen, the 'Silver Snakes', she sets out on a desperate quest to find her brother. Aided by her Palatine bodyguard, a telepathic shapeshifter, and a reluctant wizard, Tremorgan must unlock the legendary magic of the Stone of Remembrance. She cannot afford to fail. If she does, the Prince will die and the throne of Agoria will fall into Drostan's hands.

My short story, /Fire of Hope/, was published in an anthology titled FUEL FOR THE SOUL in October 2009. I'm co-founder of The Mad Scribbler's Tea Party (a critique group) and a member of the Dunedin Writer's Workshop.

In terms of web marketing, I have my own blog (*****) and I can use other webmedia, such as podcasts, to promote my books. I'm happy to make myself available for book signings, interviews and readings.

Thank you for your time and consideration of my work.

Yours Sincerely,

Penelope Gryffin
Contact numbers
Blog/web address


/Chapter One/

/The Gift/

The ringing notes of a bugle pierced the cacophony of sound filling the castle bailey. /They come. They come./

Princess Tremorgan pushed open the horn-paned windows and leaned out. Below her the bailey seethed with the movement of servants, nobles and their horses. They came for the Oath-giving: four days of celebrations
where the Agorian nobles would swear fealty to her father, King Asreal. A feeling of excitement filled the castle. Over the towers coloured pennants snapped in the breeze and somewhere a fiddler played a merry tune.

Tremorgan's fingertips whitened on the window ledge, her eyes searching the noblemen's faces. In three days a grand feast would be held to celebrate her fifteenth birthday and her father would chose one of them to wed her. Her mouth dried at the thought.

Beyond the cream stone walls of Castlewood, green land dropped away to sheer cliffs and the wild Western Sea. To the east she could see the fringe of Castle Forest and the dark ribbon of the Eastern Path. A breeze tugged strands of ebony hair from her pearl-studded hairnet. The air was heavy with the sweet perfume of blossom and new cut grass.

The bugle call rang out again. /They come. They come./

Hoof beats clattered across the drawbridge and into the cobbled inner bailey. A black robed figure led the company of knights. A silver snake, poised as if to strike, glared at her from the black shield hanging at
his mount's withers.

She shuddered and stepped back from the open window.

“You look troubled, Tre.” Her father pushed aside a fistful of documents and raised his brows.

She forced a smile.

“Your birthday?” he asked, steepling his fingers.

Shrugging, she wrapped her arms across her chest.

“Do you trust me Tre?”

Surprised, her eyes darted to his face. “Of course I do.”

“But you would rather choose for yourself?”

Her heart leapt. “You would let me choose my own husband?”

He smiled and shook his head. “No. But, if you have a preference I'll take it into account. You have three days to make your choice, fair enough?”

Bobbing a curtsy she said, “Thank you, O king.”

He chuckled. “Now, play the lute for me. I need a distraction.”

“What troubles you?”

“Oh, nothing.” He waved a hand dismissively. “Rumors of giants in the Black Mountains.”

“Giants?” Tremorgan snorted. “What nonsense!” Obediently, she lifted the instrument from its case and settled on a chair. She strummed the lute strings, listening and tweaked the tuning pegs. Satisfied, her fingers
danced over the strings and sweet music filled the chamber.

Walking to the window, King Asreal clasped his hands behind him. A smile curled his lips as he watched her play.

He cocked his head, listening, a frown creased his brow.

“Stop!” His cry sliced through the melody.

Tremorgan's fingers stilled and the music died on a discordant note.

Monday, 10 May 2010


The most common question people ask writers is, "Where do you get your ideas?" For a long time I struggled with finding a helpful and polite answer to this question. (Before you say it: I know, I struggle to be polite at the best of times.) My instinct, depending on how crabbit I was feeling at the time, would either have been, "From my head, duh!" or, "Oh, I don't know, really - they just sort of come to me, ya know?"

It's not a stupid question, but it's a mystifying one for a writer. After all, an idea is just a thought and for writers and non-writers equally our thoughts come from all sorts of places but happen in our heads. So, for a writer as much as for a non-writer, a thought can be triggered by something you hear or read, or something that happens, or something that you found yourself thinking about for some reason. Sometimes you know what triggered it and sometimes you don't.

But I do now have an answer to the question and it goes to the heart of this blog post.

It's something that Brahms apparently said. Now, I heard this many years ago, so I'm not sure why I didn't think of using it to answer the "Where do you get your ideas" question. I even imagine that Brahms was actually answering that very question when he gave this answer, but what he said was (and I paraphrase because my German is nein-existent),
"The idea comes to me from outside of me - and is like a gift. I then take the idea and make it my own - that is where the skill lies."
And it very much is like that for writers. Having ideas is easy - everyone has ideas. And so often, and infuriatingly, non-writers say to writers, "Oh, you could write a book about that." No, not unless the idea can be turned into an appropriate story, because a story is not just "something interesting that happens". An idea is not a story any more than a seed is a tree.

So, where do I get my ideas from? Ideas come because I open my mind to them; I am greedy for them. Ideas are like seeds blown on the wind: they can land almost anywhere. And when a seed lands, which seems at first as though it might grow into a story, I have to process it, like watering it and nurturing it. It needs time and all the right conditions. If I fail to give it the right conditions, or if it turns out to have been a weak seed in the first place, then I will need to discard it and move onto to a more fruitful idea.

Because, importantly, not every idea is a book. And this is a very big mistake that some beginner writers make. They (and non-writers) might think, "Ooh, imagine a woman having surgery without anaesthetic in the early nineteenth century, and her young son hearing her screams and watching her die of blood-poisoning five days later. What would that do to his life?"

That's an idea. (In fact it's the idea that begins my second novel, Fleshmarket.) But it's not a story. A story needs fleshed out characters that you care about and can make your reader care about, each character with his or her own backstory and motivation; it needs a setting and a rich environment; it needs strands and a sub-plot or two; it needs direction and form and pace and a voice. It needs to have a point and a reason why a reader would spend money and time reading it.

When you have your idea, your seed of a possible story, you need to do two things with it:
  1. Be totally inspired by it - because you're going to have to live, breathe and dream it for months.
  2. Think it through, logically and skilfully, working out shape and direction and looking ahead to possible problems. Many writers will write the plan out, but not everyone does this. I don't, but I do spend many, many hours thinking things through, analysing what will work and what won't. I spend that time living the idea in my head, even if I haven't worked the plot out. If the idea is strong enough and the characters real and whole enough, then I know I can grow it into a full story - but part of that knowledge comes from experience. If you are a beginner gardener, you may find it harder to identify the healthy seed at the start. Beginner writers may find themselves spending too long nurturing a dud idea.
I'm going to say that again because it's perhaps the main point of this post: Beginner writers may find themselves spending too long nurturing a dud idea.
This blog post was triggered by an excellent piece over at Kidlit. Please go and read it. Now you might think, "Why do I need to read about writing for kids? I'm a fully-grown adult author." If you think that, I'm sorry to say that you betray an extreme ignorance of the writing process and its demands. Only in the details of age-pitching are there any differences between writing for any age group. We all work to the same standards - in fact, I'd argue that in many ways the standards you have to adhere to in children's writing are tougher. Anyway, in terms of ideas becoming fully-grown stories, what Mary at Kidlit has to say is utterly applicable.

So, my answer to the ideas question is now: "Getting ideas is easy: everyone does it. It's growing an idea into a story that takes time and skill and determination."

People also say that getting published is a combination of talent, luck and hard work. I'd go so far as to say that the only really lucky bit is the moment the idea comes - as Brahms says, like a gift - and everything else is the talent and hard work.

To illustrate something of what I've been saying about how ideas come and how writers process them, can I ask you to go over to Jane Smith's blog, where I relate the very lucky moment which sparked the idea for Wasted, my latest novel? Unfortunately, you can't put comments there any more because Jane is moving her blog over to a fab new website, so do come back and comment here. Please! It does illustrate how luckily an idea can come and how the idea sometimes needs a long, long time to grow. If I'd written the book when I first had the idea - before I was ever published - it would have been very different and I very much doubt it would be getting the reviews that Wasted is getting. That idea really did need nurturing and I don't think I could have done it all those years ago.

Luckily, I didn't!

Thursday, 6 May 2010


I won't lay down rules about what risks you should or shouldn't take in your writing - it's something you need to work out. I do believe taking risks is essential in both life and writing but I also believe that every risk should be weighed up and taken only as an informed decision.

In writing, the risks you can get away with, and the risks you need to take, depend on a few things:
  1. how good you actually are
  2. whether you're a debut writer or not
  3. the genre you are writing in and what the market is demanding in that genre at that time
In a nutshell, if you are a seriously talented writer, and you are either an established writer OR a new one with a majorly high-concept idea, and if the genre allows it, you can take a risk equivalent to tight-roping across a ravine. The less those conditions apply, the less risky the risks you will be able to get away with.

But remember what these risks entail. If the risk doesn't work in your favour, you will either remain unpublished or, if published, your book may bomb. Or at least die with a whimper.

What do I mean by taking risks in writing? What are the risky practices that you might be tempted to try, rightly or wrongly? Please note that when I say "risky", I do so as someone who approves of risk-taking, so I'm not saying you should avoid it. I'm saying you should understand the risks and possible downsides.

  1. Extreme originality that may be inaccessible to enough buyers - for example, a unique voice, a strange structure, something very arty (because many people, when they come across arty, think weird). The tricky thing is that publishers and agents do want your writing to be original - but the degree of desired originality does depend on the genre, your aim and your talent. Publishers and agents ALSO want books that readers will feel comfortable with. So, my advice is don't try to be original if you're not: go for a tried and tested style / voice with a great idea, unless your writing really can carry off a truly original voice.
  2. Breaking the rules of your genre - yes, rules are, in many ways, there to be broken. But only when you know why you're doing it and when you've worked out exactly how this is going to sell and where it's going to sit on shelves. When rules are broken without reason, you look ignorant or unskilled, I'm afraid.
  3. Genre-crossing without due diligence - of course, very many books are a combination of two genres and this can work brilliantly and be a really interesting read on every level. Crossing genres is not, per se, something risky, but quite normal. However, there are some things to be aware of and wary about. For example, taking it to extremes is risky - a paranormal sci-fi romantic comedy will be hard to pull off for a novice. You must also think carefully about how you're going to pitch it because everyone at each stage of the selling process needs to know where to shelve it and how to sell it. Over-complicating their job is not a wise move.
  4. Writing a niche book - nothing wrong with that but be aware that a publisher has to be able to sell it. Make sure you really do know your market if you're going to write a book that has an avowedly small audience.
  5. Moving away from the genre from which you're known, if you're already published, can be risky. I'd hate to suggst that writers should allow themselves to be pigeon-holed but refusing to sit in your box is still risky. I am a prime example of someone who would be more commercially successful (ie, frankly, richer) if I'd sat happily in one genre so that my readers knew what to expect each time. A pseudonym is an option if you want to differentiate between two types of book, but this wouldn't have worked for me as almost all my books are different from each other. I would soon have forgotten who I was supposed to be!
  6. Not writing the right debut book. A debut book launches your career and has to make its mark. If you're unpublished, ask yourself whether your current WIP is really a strong enough concept to launch a career.
There's a reason I'm talking about risk at this time. My new YA novel, Wasted, was a risk and I knew it from the start.
  1. Its voice is very unusual and if I'd got it slightly wrong it could have grated. An unusual voice is hard to sustain and could have easily slipped or become boring.
  2. It has some radical POV shifts and juggles an omniscient multi-POV. Third person present tense is also probably the riskiest voice to attempt.
  3. It contains difficult abstract concepts and asks the reader to embrace complex aspects of science and several types of philosophy. (So far, everyone seems to have found this easy.)
  4. It is a book that I had to write - but a book that the writer feels compelled to write is not necessarily a book that readers will feel compelled to read. I knew this, but I had to do it. Just had to.
Fortunately, the early signs at the time of writing this post are that my risk-taking has paid off. But my fingers are still hugely crossed and I'm very far from relaxed. But, so far, I have had the most extraordinary response, from adults and teenagers. I am not stupid: I know that there'll be people who don't like it and who will decide to say so, perhaps vehemently - and it's often the case that the more glowing one's best reviews, the more biting the worst ones, so I know it's going to be sore when the negative comments come. But what I do know is that I've done what I set out to do: to get my intended readers by the throat, shake them up, make them talk, keep them awake at nights, and at the end for them actually to say they enjoyed it.

So, to all of you, whatever stage you're at in this crazy business: take risks, yes, but take them in the full knowledge of what those risks are, why you are taking them and how to make sure that your seat-belt is as securely fastened as possible.

Monday, 3 May 2010


Here's another myth / misconception about being published: Publication Day. Well, no, the day isn't a myth. But that idea that it's all glittery is.

Today, for example, is the Publication Day for Wasted. Do you hear any trumpets? Did I receive flowers and champagne? Am I either relaxing in splendid luxury or tearing round the country signing books for my adoring fans? Both of them.

No. (Well, I don't think so, but I am writing this in advance and you never know...)

I am spending the morning presenting prizes at the Pushkin Awards - a creative writing competition for Scottish and Russian schools. I was one of the judges, and I was incredibly impressed by the standard of entries. Then I'm hopping on a train to London at lunch-time, in order to be there on Tuesday morning to make tea for the persons from Pickfords who will be moving our furniture into our new London flat. (The persons from Pickfords are a little like the person from Porlock: they stop writers from writing.)

But on the train I must be writing, because the last few weeks have been shockingly useless for that. Not only have we been up to our eyes in Pickfords people (having moved house four weeks ago, as Stage One), but I've been evicted from my study by my daughter who has been staying with us, which is obviously lovely, but the new Edinburgh flat doesn't have enough rooms for all four of us so I have had to work at the kitchen table, which rather often seems to have tomato pips on it. Plus, there've been eleventymillion workmen of all sorts trying to fix problems.

What is my point and why the title about glittery things? My first point is that there are moments in a writer's life which should have trumpets and glitter but don't. And there are moments of pleasure which come when you least expect them. Like any life, really?

My moments of pleasure in the last couple of weeks have come from the quite exceptional response to Wasted from all those who have made a public comment about it, including on Amazon (unless something negative has gone up since I last looked!) I have never had such reactions before and I am beginning to dare to hope that this might be a word of mouth success. My publishers say there's a real buzz and they are daring to be excited too. A happy state for an author, let me tell you. Our careers are very fragile and we really need our publishers to believe in us and our books. One day, probably soon, I will blog in more detail about the fragility of author-publisher relationships.

Wasted is the sort of book which cannot really be marketed or thrust at its very savvy target marget. It's a book which stands or falls by one thing: reader reaction. You can't have publishers going round saying a book is brilliant and expect clever people to believe it. But when readers of all sorts and all ages start to talk and recommend a book, that's where the power lies.

Vanessa Robertson, the owner of the Edinburgh Bookshop and The Children's Bookshop, said on Twitter that if Wasted didn't win awards and sell in quantities, there was no justice. That's a lovely thought. Thing is - and this is my second point - in writing as in life, justice is often a scarce commodity.

After all, if there was any justice, I'd be drinking champagne and being pampered today. Not on a train trying to get some writing done before welcoming Mr Pickford for the fourth time in a month...

You know it yourselves: books that should sell and do well often don't. And vice-versa. Many of you are good enough to be published, and yet you haven't been - yet, and I'm trying to help you.

If you want to know more about Wasted and follow its progress while seeing some of the behind-the-scenes facts, do hop over to the Wasted blog, where we are discussing everything from quantum physics and philosophy, to risk, luck and cats.

Now, I have a big request for you. Pretty please. If you read Wasted, and if you like it, would you tell people about it? I will be so grateful for anything you can do, however small. I really need this book to work, and there is more riding on this than you can imagine. Wasted is a risky book; it could have bombed; it still could. I put myself on the line to write the book I believed in with as much faith as I could find, and now I'm asking for help.

Your help.

Because if this book does well, the champagne's on me.

Not literally.

Off to buy biscuits for Mr Pickford.