Tuesday, 31 August 2010


The difference between a first draft and the final draft should be vast. It is the difference between ignoring your readers and listening to them. It's the difference between being a loudmouth and being a writer. It's the difference between being an arrogant bastard who loves the sound of her own voice, and a dedicated, tuned-in communicator with a passion for words and a burning need to make those words matter.

It's the difference between not being published and being published.

I remember when I was trying - and failing - to be published. (God, I remember it.) Anyway. I went to a thing. I'd like to call it an event but it was seriously uneventful. It was a gathering of people who wanted to listen to someone - not me - who'd had a book published. Or, as I now realise, self-published. (Which is fine, because actually it was the right sort of book to be s-pubbed, being a genuinely niche book.) Anyway, I got chatting to the author. And I made the big mistake of telling her about my lengthy editing Process. God, what a process, I said. I edit and edit and hone and hone and slice and splice and generally try to make it as perfect as I can.

"Oh," she said. "Don't bother with that. I can always tell an over-edited piece of work. One should never edit too much."

CRAP. One should edit and edit and edit and edit until there is nothing more one can possibly do. As Oscar W famously said. "I spent all morning editing a poem and I removed one comma. In the afternoon, I put it back again."

I have never edited "too much". Sure, sometimes I have to stop because I have reached The Deadline and people are about to shout at me, which I hate, but I would rather carry on. And on. And...

By the way, that woman's book really really really needed editing.

So do my blog-posts but that's different because if you don't like my stream of consciousness you don't have to read it. You  haven't paid me, after all. More's the pity, you mean buggers.

So. Editing. I have talked about it before. But I want to take a different tack on it today. There are, it seems, three things to do.
  1. You must cut.
  2. You must add.
  3. And you must check for hidden nastiness.
The first and the last are the ones most often covered in how-to-write thingummies. I've said them myself. It goes like this:

Apply the machete. Be ruthless. If it's not necessary, get rid of it. If it wriggles and pleads, kill it. If you love it especially, it must die. Every word must count.

Know what could be wrong. Get genned up on voice slippages, POV switches, structural crappiness, pace issues. Slash dialogue tags, burn redundant adverbs. Make your beginning zing, tighten up your saggy middle, make sure your ending satisfies. Smarten up your grammar, kill clichés, disentagle metaphors, make sure that all disbelief is suspended from a very high tower. Do not let yourself get away with anything. Masochism is compulsory.

We don't talk about this, do we? We talk about getting rid of things because for most writers that's the big necessity. But someone emailed me recently and asked what happens when, after cutting out your redundant words, you are left with the nightmare scenario of a book that's too short...

Well, one thing's for sure: you shouldn't just bulk it up with some more description or character analysis or whatever. Because, for crying out loud, that's what you just took out.

So, what we might need is a whole new angle. A new sub-plot. And that's not easy. And might look added on. So, ask yourself this: what if... well, what if anything. What if a new character suddenly forced his or her way in? Yay! Right at the start. What if someone was watching your first chapter and muscled in? Seriously. Just forced his way in. Bastard! Deal with him. He could cause serious damage. Ooh, damage - that would be GOOD, no? Could so disrupt your other characters. See, they were sitting there all complacent when suddenly someone from Carrie's past, or Joel's past, or someone from the future, or just someone with a new agenda arrives. Ooh, what shenanigans. Could be someone that Sarah would hate or Esma would fall in love with.

Or, maybe not a whole new angle. Maybe a diversion. Maybe you had been so focused on the imminent ending that you hurtled your characters too quickly towards it. So, how about if, instead of having three things that get in the way of your MC's aim, you have FOUR? Ooh, just as the reader thought it was going SO well, you introduce a huge new spanner, and it throws everything into disarray.

Crikey, it could take another 20,000 to get out of that.

So, new character or spanner. Go on, you know you want to.

Thing is, there'll be a load more editing to do because then you'll need to do the cutting and checking again. And you'll find bits that need re-threading and tweaking. But it will be worth it. Because eventually you will have your beautiful final draft.

Draft. Still a draft. Not finished.

Well, of course, a bit more editing. Mmmm. And eventually it's not a draft any more. No, it's not perfect - it never will be. But it will be as perfect as you can make it.

And that's enough.

Go edit. Cut. Add. Check.

Saturday, 28 August 2010


This is one of my temporarily removed and now temporarily reinstated posts giving tutorials on Twitter. Please note that my forthcoming short ebook will do this much better and more conprehensively and more clearly! If I were you, I'd wait...

If you've read my first Twitter post, you'll know WHY you might want to be on Twitter if you're a writer. And if you've read the second one here, you'll already have a small list of people to follow to get you started. (Please do make sure you've done that before going on, or things won't make sense.)

Now, we're going to get started with some actual tweeting, which is the way to attract a few followers and start to feel the benefits. I call it Tweeting in the Void, because since you don't have many followers yet, it can feel as though no one's listening. But, combining some basic techniques of following and tweeting is the best way to begin to get followers and start to enjoy the benefits of Twitter. Do, please, be patient.

First, because I'm using Tweetdeck, I need to make sure that you've got started properly on that. (There is nothing wrong with sticking with the basic Twitter page, but it's less easy to see what's going on or identifying when people are specifically talking to you.)

TWEETDECK - GETTING STARTED - NB there are older and newer versions of Tweetdeck and I hope what I'm going to say corresponds to yours. If not, please say if you can't find how to do it. A bit of playing around should sort you, though.
  1. Once you have your normal Twitter account, download Tweetdeck (from tweetdeck.com) and follow the instructions to sign into it, using your Twitter name and password. When you've done this, your screen should have three columns, titled: All Friends, Mentions, and Direct Messages.
  2. All Friends shows anything tweeted by someone you follow, with the most recent first. Mentions shows anything in which someone used YOUR Twitter name (always with @ in front of it) - these are people who have chosen to include you in a conversation, ask you a question, say hello, or "Retweet" (more later) something you've already said. It's a way of attracting your attention and you need to remember this because it's also how YOU will attract someone else's attention. Direct Messages are private messages to you, but no one can send one to you if you aren't following them, so you are very unlikely to get many at first. I caution against ever putting anything very confidential in these, as it is far too easy to click the wrong button and send it to the world...
  3. Now, I want you to add a 4th column - New Followers. To do this: near the top left corner of your screen, you'll see a circle with a + in it. Click this. A small screen will appear and you'll see a list of three things: Search, Groups/Lists and Core. Select Core. Select the option that says New Followers. (You can also select anything else you want - Tweetdeck Recommends might be helpful, but I'm not going to talk about it - it's simple enough to play with these things.)
  4. So, now you have a 4th column on your screen, showing the most recent people who have chosen to follow you. (Maybe no one yet!) If there's anyone there, you will see that you now have the chance to choose whether to follow them back. (Can you see the "follow" button to the bottom right of each one?) You will see a little biog for each person and you can click on their name (bottom left of each one) to see whether you'd like to follow them. When you click on their name, you will have the option to read their recent tweets and this will alert you to anything dodgy. At your stage, I recommend you DO follow unless it is someone who you definitely don't like the sound of, or someone selling stuff. 
  5. One more thing you need to do, for your own sanity - switch off the bloody Tweetdeck alerts, otherwise you'll have a stupid bird cheeping at you every time someone you follow tweets. Go to Settings - the spanner icon, top right - choose "Detail OFF", "Summary OFF" and put the volume slider to the left-most position. Sorted!
  6. Play about with the various icons for a while so that you can see what they do.
Until you have followers, no one can hear what you say. (Unless you "mention" them, which I'll come to in a minute.) The way to start is by following people - people who you want to make contact with or at least listen to. (Simply using Twitter to listen to others, without joining in, is perfectly reasonable.) It's important to remember that one big difference between Facebook and Twitter is that no permission is required. So, you choose to follow someone and they don't have to approve this. (They can block you but they would only bother to do this if you were annoying them.)

So, getting followers has two main elements:
  1. Finding people to follow, and following them - because there's a good chance they'll follow you back, as long as they can see that you're not unpleasant or irritating.
  2. Tweeting things that people might find interesting, friendly, fun, relevant to them - then they might choose to follow you and possibly recommend you to their friends to follow. If someone sees you having a friendly conversation with someone they follow, they will probably follow you too. You then need to maintain those contacts by continuing to tweet in a postive, friendly and useful way.
Before I go on, let me give you my overall advice about enjoying Twitter: although Twitter is not exactly the same as a face-to-face environment, it rather closely mirrors they way we make friends and contacts in real life. So, as with any physical context, the best thing to do is not to leap in shouting, but to watch a bit, and find your way into the language and etiquette. People on Twitter usually want to make friends and will usually be welcoming, but the same sort of things are annoying on Twitter as in real life: boasting, demanding, only talking about yourself, not listening to others, being loud-mouthed and boring etc. The advantage of Twitter is that it's very easy to ignore someone or something that you don't like and very easy to chat with someone you do like.
    FINDING PEOPLE TO FOLLOW - three main options
    1. Start with the list in my blog-post here. (To find one of them, on the Tweetdeck screen find the icon which when you hover over it says Quick profile; click it and paste or type the name into the box. The profile will come up and you'll see an icon to click to follow them.)
    2. Visit blogs you like and click on the "Follow on Twitter" link which you will very often find there.
    3. Visit the Twitter profile of someone you follow and who seems to have lots of useful / friendly contacts, and follow any of the people you find there. For example, if you went to my Twitter page (https://twitter.com/nicolamorgan) you would see on the right-hand side an option to click on the list of my followers. They then appear in a list and you can click on any name to see who they are. There is a button to allow you to follow any you choose. (You can also find out what recent tweets I or any followers have recently made, so that you can see how we behave.)
    There are other ways to find followers, but I think this is enough for now, because I want you to start tweeting!

    1. If you've just read or seen something funny, weird or interesting online, you can say so and include the link. (You will find a way of shortening the link - paste or type the URL into the writing space as normal; then, if it doesn't automatically shorten, click the button that looks like a link with two arrows. Experiment if you can't find it.)
    2. If you've read a book and loved it, say so, with a link to it if poss. If you happen to know that the author is on Twitter (see their web page) add their Twitter name (remember the @ sign). If you didn't like the book, I urge you not to say so - the author and all his/her friends are probably on Twitter too...
    3. Say something TO someone you follow. This appears in his/her Mentions column. For example, you could say, "@nicolamorgan thanks for your blog post about Twitter - I'm having loads of fun with it!" Then I will see it and almost certainly say thank you - and follow you if I'm not already!
    4. Another type of mention would be to say something ABOUT someone you follow. Eg "I saw @hprw at the EdinburghBkFest and she was fab" 
    5. Say something interesting you've just done or something that's just happened. Clearly, not everyone will be interested, but someone might be. For example, perhaps you're on your way to the theatre - if you tweet about it, you might find someone else went to see the same play and say so. In the same way as you might tell a group of freinds that something interesting / funny / horrible / frightening  has just happened, you can do the same on Twitter. (Don't be offended if no one replies - it's not compulsory and they just might have missed your tweet.)
    6. Anything funny that's happened is always fun for people to see. I find a great deal of good material on train journeys. I once found someone on the same train because we were both tweeting about an incident.
    7. You can send a photo - especially if you've just witnessed something odd or interesting in some way. See the camera icon on the Tweetdeck screen.
    8. You could ask a question  - but don't ask something that you could easily find on the internet yourself.
    9. If you have blogged about something, make sure you put it on twitter. (There's a way of automatically linking your blog to twitter, but I don't have time to deal with that just now.)
    10. Reply to someone's tweet. Hover your mouse over the person's icon and choose the one that says Reply. You will see their name appear in the writing space. Write your message and click send. It will appear in their Mentions column and they will often reply to you. (Don't be upset if they don't - if it's someone with lots of followers or if they just didn't feel it needed a reply, or were too busy, it's not rude not to reply.) 
    11. RETWEET someone's tweet - see below.

    This is one of the most useful things to know about communicating on Twitter. It's something you can do straightaway and people like it. What happens is this:
    1. You see that someone has said something that you agree with or like in some way. (Or disagree with, if you want to be bold...) For example, they say something funny; or they include a link which you like. 
    2. To Retweet (RT) it, hover your mouse over the person's picture on that tweet; one of the options says Retweet so-and-so's tweet. Click this. 
    3. In the writing space, you'll see that the whole tweet has been copied there, with the letters RT at the beginning. You will also see two options: Retweet now or Edit then Retweet. Choose the edit one. Now, ideally, you add something to the beginning, even something short like Yes! or  Ha! BUT, what if the tweet is now too long? You will need to cut it down. Shorten anything you can or remove something that's not necessary. Don't leave it so that the original writer might be misinterpreted though...
    4. Then click send. The orginal writer will now see this, and probably be grateful to you for RTing it.
    1. Anything inflammatory, or anything critical of another writer or anyone else you'd prefer not to upset. It's really, really not the place to tell someone you don't like their book. 
    2. Asking an individual to do anything. I cannot emphasise enough how wrong it would be to pitch a novel to an agent or publishing person on Twitter. Sometimes people ask me to blog about something - that's fine. I don't know why that's fine, but it is...
    3. I recommend you do not link your Facebook personal page to Twitter - your FB friends will get pretty peed off because tweets are usually more informal and more frequent than FB updates. (An FB "author page" is a different matter.)
    4. Too much whingeing and negativity isn't ideal. If something's going wrong in my life I'd rather keep that to close friends and family and many people say the same, that Twitter is not the place to offload too much. Exasperation and grumpiness are different, because they can be amusing, but it's very hard for acquaintances to feel they can properly support someone who is going through a hard time. I am not being harsh - I'm a very willing listening ear for my friends, but I don't think public forum is the right place for it. 
    5. Anything you might regret. Just be careful. Don't tweet after too much alcohol. Or when angry or hurt. ANYONE might see your tweet and even though you can delete it it will be too late. If someone has seen it and retweeted it, you can't rectify the situation. It is best to remember all the time that absolutely anyone might see your tweets, even if they don't follow you.
    6. Too much promotion and boasting. Off course, when something good happens, your friends want to know, and many of your friends are on Twitter, but,as with a face-to-face encounter, there are ways of doing it that are going to put people off or not. The nicest thing is when someone else announces your good news and then you can say thank you. 
    WHAT NEXT? Another time, I'll cover hashtags, followfridays and avoiding spam. Anything else I need to cover?

    One thing I haven't mentioned at all is whether you need a phone to do all this. The answer is no, but an internet enabled phone will certainly give you much more chance to make use of Twitter.

    Finally, I've said this before but I'll say it again: be patient. Making face-to-face relationships and contacts takes time and it's just the same with Twitter. But, in my opinion, it's well worth it and most people seem to enjoy it if they want to. But it does take time and it may be time you don't want to spend. It is entirely up to you.

        Friday, 27 August 2010


        There are so many fantastic pieces of advice in this post by Ann Crispin on Writer Beware, and all of them are ones I mention in my talks. So, I can do no better than send you over there. Take every one of them to heart.

        By the way, a query letter is a US term, quickly coming over here. It is so similar to the UK "covering letter"  that you can follow all the advice in this article for UK and US submissions. The only relevant difference is that the UK one will be accompanied by a separate synopsis, on top of the elevator pitch in the letter.

        I would add one thing, though. Ann mentions two sorts of query letter - the standard, recommended one and the one that is "weird, quirky, but so irresistible and creative that it will capture the attention of an agent even though it's far outside the "accepted" model. This kind of query letter springs from true talent and writing genius, and really can't be taught. I've seen some of them, and they leave me in awe -- and they immediately captured the interest of the agent(s) they were sent to."

        I cannot emphasise enough how rare it is for someone to be able to pull off this latter type of query. Many of us think we've written something brilliantly quirky, when in fact it's just plain weird. Ann is not recommending the plain weird, the weird-for-the-sake-of-it. She is talking about genius. So, your better bet is the "normal" query letter.

        The advice is all there - no excuses for not taking it on board. If nothing else, it gives you a great insight into the mind of the agent or publisher receiving your submission.

        Wednesday, 25 August 2010

        AND NOW UNPUTDOWNABILITY (via Nick Cross)

        Nick Cross, whose writing blog I really really like, put a link to his post about Unputdownability in a comment under my recent post on Page-turnability. And his is such a good and relevant post about making your writing zing with unputdownability that I simply want to send you over there.

        Of course, as there are different sorts of readers, there are different things which make a book unputdownable. Racing action is only one of them, but Nick knows what his potential readers want. You need to know what your potential readers want. If your readers want something slower, something that digs its way deeper into the mind and is unputdownable because of how it traps the reader in some other way than desperately needing to know what happens next, that's fine. But whoever your readers and whatever sort of book, surely we all want to hear the words, "I just couldn't put it down."

        Monday, 23 August 2010


        Please note that Tweet Right will be published as an ebook very soon and will cover this information much more clearly and elegantly and in much more detail. Details at the top of the blog.

        I wasn't planning to do this but so many of you joined Twitter after my earlier post today that it seemed to me that the best way to do a quick and useful follow up would be to put a list of suggested people to follow. These are either writers, keen readers, publishing people or just interested in the whole bookworld thang. They are all friendly and will make you welcome. (If you happen to notice any agents or publishers on the list DO NOT pitch to them. If they think that's what you're after, they'll run a mile. And block you.)

        Please don't be offended if you're not on this list - I'm in a hurry so this is simply taken from the list of people I've most recently corresponded with on Twitter, and I can say I like what I know of them all. If there are any axe-murderers amongst them, they are hiding it well.

        In no particular order and it's up to you to check out their profile to see why you would want to follow them:

        @hprw  @caroleagent @Gillian_Philip @MikeJarman @MarshallBuckley @EffieMerryl @burn2write @cat_clarke @CatONineTales @rebeccaebrown @helen_kara @hmhunt  @lucycoats @marymhoffman @EdinBookshop @scottishbktrust @janjonesauthor @KatieFforde @AbsoluteWrite @agnieszkasshoes @AmandaPCraig @allanguthrie @bahtocancer @benjohncock @marisabirns @Pamreader @SCallejo @jesserowen @lovereadingx @Quillers @catdownunder @sleepycatt   @Danoosha @fidunbar @strachanlinda

         Once you are following them, some of them will follow you. You don't then have to do anything unless you are ready, though sending them a message (*not a private one) saying thank you is good idea. (Simply write a tweet that says, for example, "Thanks to @Gillian_Philip for the follow - am new to this!" And that's it, till either a) you want to play around or b) I get round to the next lesson...

        And in answer to an earlier question along the lines of "Am on Tweetdeck - now what the heck do I do?" - don't panic! All will become clear.

        *The reason I say NOT a private one - known as Direct Message or DM - is that it can be a tad annoying to get a DM from someone you actually don't know, when it doesn't have to be private at all. Save DMs for things that really should be discreet - though I recommend not using twitter at all for genuinely confidential stuff. Too many opportunities for disaster. Again, I will make all this much clearer as we come to it.


        My blog posts about Twitter are now best covered in the ebook, Tweet Right. 

        I have removed the content of this blog post because the free sample of Tweet Right covers the ground. Download it here.

        Sunday, 22 August 2010


        To all those who came to my networking/blogging/Twitter workshop/talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival today, and to those who couldn't get tickets - I plan to blog coherently and properly about each of the aspects of the topic over the next couple of weeks. It was impossible to cover everything in the time, and I'm sure lots of you went away wanting to know more about how to apply what I said to your own very varied situations. So, please hang around, and join in when the posts come.

        Meanwhile, what DO you want to know about how authors can use FB, blogs and Twitter? Add your specific questions below!

        Friday, 20 August 2010


        It's the new mantra. Of course, lots of readers have very understandably looked for page-turnability ever since pages existed. Now, it's virtually essential if you want your book published. There are two reasons for its new necessity. The first reason may be spurious. The second is not.
        1. Nowadays, we are told, readers don't have time to hang around.
        2. Publishers demand page-turnability because page-turnability sells more copies and more copies are what they MUST sell, because the income on each copy sold is so much less than it was. (As I said here and here.)
        Reason 1 may be rubbish. Certainly, many readers are happy to sit with a deeper and slower book. But a) there is some worrying evidence that the attention-spans of many people are shorter; b) there are certainly more demands on most people's time, so books are in stiffer competition; c) crucially, whatever the truth, publishers believe that shorter and faster are what readers want, and since publishers are the ones selling our books, that's what goes.

        Reason 2 is undoubtedly true. More readers will read your book if it has page-turnability than if it doesn't. You need more readers - wherever you stand on the art / commerce continuum, if you want to be published, you need to be able to attract more readers than you would have done five years ago, because of falling unit income. (No, I don't like thinking about "unit income" either, but I find that published writers tend to be far more realistic than unpublished ones.)

        So, how do you achieve page-turnability? Here are the methods - apply them more rigorously or less rigorously, depending on your wishes, your genre, your book, and just how much page-turnability you're after.

        STAGE ONE - apply the machete
        • Shorten chapters, unless they are already stupidly short. Alter the places where they begin and end so that they usually end mid-action. Give every chapter a knife-edge beginning and ending. Do not let your reader stop reading.
        • Remove much more description than you want to.
        • Ditto with back-story, philosophy, scene setting and world building. Just because you know it, doesn't mean the reader needs it. Think iceberg.
        • Remove at least two of the first five chapters. Just do it. See what happens.
        • Remove all your favourite sentences.
        STAGE TWO - apply filler
        Now that you've cut so much, see if there are any holes. Fill the holes with action. No murder for forty pages? KILL someone. No threats, sinister appearances, ghosts, car chases, unsheathing of knives, MC hanging off a precipice, revealing or touching erogenous zone (if age appropriate), thunder storm, escaping tiger in this chapter? WHY NOT?

        STAGE THREE - stand back and admire
        Read it. What do you think? The reason I ask is that I'm doing this at the moment and I am surprised at how much I like what's left. That's what I'm offering my readers: something I like and I really want them to like. If, however, thinking as a reader - and thinking as a reader who is less keen than you are as a reader - you really, really, really, want to put something back in, do.

        But I bet you won't. Because what you'll be doing then is spoiling a clean piece of writing which has true page-turnability, and you will not be making it more likely to be published.

        If being published is not what you want, ignore all my advice.

        Wednesday, 18 August 2010


        More and more, writers must be professional. Not just in terms of handing in our work to deadline and without coffee stains, but also in terms of organising and managing the various areas of our working lives. We must be business-people if we want to make a business - a living - out of writing. Are you turning away in disgust? I sympathise. Most of us became or wanted to be writers because we love the art of it and see ourselves as artists. That's fine. But if that's the whole of how you see yourself, you won't be published or make anything approaching an income from your writing. It's not enough nowadays to spend half the year writing a novel and the other half researching the next one. You will be doing many other things, both other things to earn money and other things to manage your career.

        I've been banging on about this, as you might have noticed, and my comments were noticed by screen-writer and coach, Adrian Mead. Actually, we'd met each other at a conference where we were both speaking a while ago, and had both meant to get in touch, but Adrian beat me to it. So, I asked him to write something for you. He had two suggestions, which I decided would make two separate guest posts, and he kindly agreed.

        Today's post is about treating your writing life like a business. When I'd been in Adrian's event, he'd begun by testing the audience with some questions about their business-skills - he mentions it in his article below - and I'm and relieved to say that I was in the last group standing!

        Later, I'm getting Adrian back to talk about screen-writing opportunities for writers. 

        Let me tell you about him. He formerly worked as a night club bouncer and a hairdresser before stumbling upon the world of film and Television. He has since directed six short films and has developed a career as a writer of television drama.  His credits include ITV's "The Last Detective", "Blue Dove", "Where The Heart Is", BBC's "Paradise Heights","The Eustace Brothers", "Waking The Dead".

        In 2005 Adrian wrote and directed his first feature film "Night People", winner of the BAFTA Scotland and Cineworld Audience Award and also nominated for Best screenplay.  Screenings at numerous international festivals followed with a UK theatrical release in 2006/7. He is currently developing a number of Film and TV projects with UK and International production companies and broadcasters. 

        His book Making It As A Screenwriter launched in September 2008 and was hailed by leading industry professionals as the definitive career guide for aspiring screenwriters. "Every aspiring writer should be forced to read this, at gunpoint." - James Moran, Screenwriter:  Severance, Doctor Who, Torchwood, Spooks Code 9, Crusoe. Adrian is represented by Cathy King at Independent Talent Group (formerly known as ICM London)

        Novelist, journalist, screenwriter, biographer...it's all writing.  But how do you get paid for it?  Well, one thing is certain, whatever field you hope to break into you must be prepared to take yourself seriously and plan a career strategy.

        The following article isn't meant to be a downer, quite the opposite in fact.  I hope to offer some very practical steps to help you achieve your dream of making a living as a writer.  If you don't need the money and are writing purely for the joy of it, look away now.  This article is definitely not for you.  If you want money read on.

        I make my living as a writer and director of film and TV and love my job.  I have to be able to deal with constant rejections, deliver to strict deadlines, cope with numerous rewrites and still keep smiling. That's why it pays very well.  I had no formal training and no connections to the industry when I started out. What I did have was a plan which enabled me to change career.  I went from from bouncer and hairdresser, yes I know, very odd combination, to award winning writer and director.  

        As a result of my unusual route into the business I often get asked to speak to novelists and screenwriters. I don't teach them how to write, I teach them how to get a job and I've worked with hundreds of aspiring writers who claim they are passionate about pursuing their dream.

        It usually takes less than two minutes for them to prove to me they are doomed to fail.

        How can I say this with such certainty? Well, at most events where say 100 aspiring writers are gathered, I get them to stand up whilst I test their career strategy.  Let's try it.  Imagine you are stood with the audience.  If you answer no to any question you sit down. Ready?

        Remain standing if...

        a) You believe you have the talent and tenacity to become a professional writer.  (Lost a couple already)

        Remain standing if...

        b) You have brought business cards with you today. (Shockingly I have lost whole audiences with this one question.  How are you going to promote yourself?)

        Remain standing if...

        c) You know exactly what your monthly financial outgoings are.  (They are tumbling like skittles now!  How can you run a business if you don't know what your overheads are?)

        At this point usually 97 of the 100 are sitting down and the questions that follow reveal the few that are left standing are well organised, proactive and have set goals for what they want to achieve.  At this point I usually discover at least one of them is another speaker at the event. [That was me! NM] So, out of 100 "passionate and committed writers" no more than one 1 or 2 of them will ever go on to make a full time living from their work....and I'm probably being very generous in my estimation.  Don't believe me? Ask those who teach or run courses for an honest opinion and I'm sure they will agree, off the record of course. The vast majority who have passed through their classes have given up or failed to achieve their goal.

        Now, I'm not criticizing the teachers, there are some great courses and events taught by very smart, passionate individuals. However, when it comes to passing on knowledge the old saying "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink" is never truer.  Knowledge is useless until it becomes an action and if I lost you with the first few questions you are wasting your time and money simply by failing to take the necessary and appropriate action.

        Be honest. How long have you been trying to become a pro and how successful have your efforts been? Not happy with your results? Then the following 100% accurate prediction should scare the hell out of you -
        If you keep on doing what you're doing, you will keep on getting what you're getting.
        Sure, you've probably heard me say it before, but it's true!  Every time you get frustrated or disappointed you need to remind yourself of this and take action. Here's just a couple of simple things you can do to boost your career prospects. 


        Ask yourself that question.  Why pay for your opinion, because ultimately that's what all writing is.

        You keep hearing there's no money to be earned as a writer unless you learn to diversify.  We are all going to have to work with a splintered income stream, gained from writing articles, games, novels, screenplays, plays, multi platform projects, the range of potential income is vast and daunting.   Where do you start?  Easy.

        Make it so people come to you.

        For that you need a Unique Selling Point, (USP).   For example my USP for a long time was that weird job combination I mentioned earlier, bouncer by night and hairdresser by day.  I was an authority on a very male, sometimes funny and often violent world.  In contrast I was also able to talk about the kind of intimate secrets woman shared in the salon chair.

        So what's your USP?  What are you going to use to sell you?  It's not enough just to be talented, we all want the truth, the genuine article that speaks with authority and that's what you need to be selling. It may be an experience you had, a former career, someone you have cared for...or hurt.  Become the "go to guy or gal" for a certain area of stories.

        Haven't got a USP?  Then get one. Controversy always gets people's attention. Do your research into a highly controversial area and become the expert in your chosen field. Volunteer for an organization and gain an insight into another world that people want to know about.  Be able to speak a truth and publicize the fact via your blog, website etc. Not only will your writing be better but you will be the voice of authority that people seek out.

        2. DON'T SEND E MAILS CHASING WORK.  Speculative emails are the equivalent of throwing out a message in a bottle.

        Write a phone script.
        Practice what you are going to say.
        Call them.
        Get a name and make sure you know who you are sending your ideas to.
        Then follow up.  Be polite but tenacious.

        3. LEARN THE BUSINESS you want to write for.   Nuff said.

        4. WANT VERSUS NEED.  Okay, remember we are here to make money and as all the idealists, hobby writers and folk with fat pensions have turned their eyes away for the moment we can get down to the dirty basics.  Before you start writing you need to ask yourself the question "Who will want this?" Seems obvious doesn't it?  But is that what you do, or do you mix it up with "people need this".  Most of us need to live a healthier lifestyle, but we don't want it enough to make the extra effort.  If you are going to pour your efforts into any project give yourself a fighting chance of making money by at least writing to an existing market, one that wants that product.

        For example. Selling original drama scripts to producers and financiers is becoming impossible.  Relationship dramas, Coming Of Age stories etc are the kiss of death to raising money from investors and studios. They want a clear and simple concept they can market to an established and accessible audience demographic.  That means genre projects - thrillers, comedies, horror, action.  If your idea can't be marketed with that simple, clear label the money men get twitchy.  Getting a film, book or play noticed is easier if it's got a hook that grabs people's attention. That means genre, stars, major controversy or based on a well known and already successful property, such as graphic novels.  These are more popular than ever as a source for screen adaptation and below is an extreme, but excellent example of what I've been talking about.

        Logline: After the remains of Pinocchio are discovered, Red Riding Hood, now a noted wolf hunter, and Jack the Giant Killer partner to discover who is murdering the creatures of folklore all of whom are supposed to be protected by a charm that renders them almost immortal. Along the way, they are assisted by Goldilocks, a mercenary, and Hansel & Gretel, now psychic exterminators.
        Writer: Nick Percival (creator)
        Prod. Co: Imagine Entertainment Radical Pictures
        Genre: Dark Fantasy

        Graphic novel published by Radical Comics. Imagine's Ron Howard an& Brian Grazer and Radical's Barry Levine will produce.

        You can see the poster already! Well known characters given an intriguing twist, with a clearly defined and exciting goal.  Just wish I'd pitched it first.

        Okay, next article I'll be talking about why novelists and short story writers need to be considering screenwriting as an income source and how to approach the industry.
        *  *  *

        Hard-hitting, eh? Now, of course, if you are a poet or you are genuinely writing purely for the pleasure it gives you and for the art, and happy to find just a few dedicated readers, and if you really don't mind not having any more than a handful of paying readers, that's fine, ignore what Adrian and I are saying. But, if you're a professional writer, you simply have to think along these lines. Don't be depressed - either be inspired, or walk away and continue to enjoy writing as a hobby.

        Comments, anyone? Remember, this is a practical article, not about the craft of writing but about how to make a living from it. (Actually, I believe that the attempt to make a living also hones your writing and develops you as a versatile writer.) We have to take all this on board, not to follow it slavishly but to understand it as reality and to adapt it wherever possible to our own situation, needs and wishes.

         *   *   *
        MEANWHILE.....Want to know how to get work in the best paying area of writing? Grab your place now at REWRITE: An insider's guide to working with script editors and producers.  This one day course will introduce you to producers, screenwriters and script editors who will provide you with the practical information you need to build a career in screenwriting. These classes always sell out early so don't miss out. For more details go to www.meadkerr.com

        "Adrian Mead's classes are brilliant - exciting, informative and inspirational. Nobody does it better!"
        Alanna Knight Edinburgh  / "Attending one of his classes gives you all the tools you need to succeed. The rest is up to you!" Katherine Edgar / "There are two things you need to break into the industry as a new writer - talent ........... and a day with Adrian Mead." Afua Naa-Lamle Viana

        Monday, 16 August 2010


        As you may know, on August 22nd, I am doing an event at the Edinburgh Book Festival on internet presences for authors. I'm not plugging this, since it's fully booked, but I thought I'd share some of the research with you.

        When I was planning the talk, I contacted several bloggers and Facebookers that I know amongst authors and asked for their experiences. When I asked Marsha Moore / Talli Roland  some questions, her answers seemed so interesting and spot-on, that I decided to put them up here for you, with Marsha's permission.

        Marsha blogs as Marsha Moore at  http://marshawrites.blogspot.com and as Talli Roland at http://talliroland.blogspot.com

        I told Marsha that the reason I had picked her as an interesting case was because of the difference between her two blogs. Her answer goes to the heart of "successful" blogging:
        "Actually, the difference in my two blogs shows that if you invest time and energy you can get a lot more results. My Marsha blog has been around for about a year and a half. I don’t really have a ‘theme’ for it, I don’t return comments and I’m not proactive with it. I have 110 followers. My Talli Roland blog has been around since March. I have over 360 followers because I proactively follow people and I return comments! Big difference!"
        It's the Talli blog I'm more interested in here, because of the phenomenal number of comments you get. Can you start with some facts about your Talli blog?
        "I started my Talli Roland blog the first week of March 2010, mainly to build a platform as a writer and to network with other writers. My posts are focused on writing-related subjects. Since I write rom-coms, I try to make the posts reflect the tone and voice of my writing: upbeat, a bit quirky and fun. Right now I have over 360 followers. I post five times a week at a minimum – and sometimes on weekends too."
        What made you decide to start the Talli blog when you already had your Marsha one?
        "I’ve blogged for a year and a half under my real name, Marsha Moore, but when my publisher suggested I use a pen name for my fiction writing I realized I’d have to begin building a platform for Talli Roland, too. I find blogging a great way to connect with people from around the world in a more in-depth way than on Twitter, for example, and I think it’s an important way to establish a presence on the web. It’s a good tool to let people know about your book (although if that’s all you do, you probably won’t have any followers) and help them feel like they’ve invested in your journey as an author. Not only that – it’s fun!"
        What did you think about / plan in advance?
        "I don’t plan much in advance. I do think about the posts I write, though: I try not to be negative, I definitely don’t criticize other authors, agents or publishers, and I always try to make my posts relevant to the audience reading my blog. I also try to make the posts personal – people want to see a bit of ‘you’ in the blog." [Really important points. Some bloggers become well known for being nasty or vengeful - despite my pathetic attempt to be crabbit, being nasty doesn't work for an author. Readers won't buy your books if they don't like you. Silly, but true.]
        Why do you think you generate so many comments - do you have any tricks or tips?
        "Quite simply, I generate so many comments because I take the time to comment on my followers’ blogs. If someone comments on my blog, I always return the comment on their blog. It does take a lot of time in the beginning, but once you’ve established the comment ‘cycle’ you’ll see people coming to your blog straight away to comment as soon as you post something. I also keep my posts quite short and easy to read, and I try to pose a question at the end of the post so people have something specific to respond to. Funnily enough, I have found that the more entertaining and less serious my posts are, the more comments they get." [Again, replying to comments is really important - people need to feel it's a conversation. You don't have to reply to everything though, and silly things are best ignored, rather than answered.]
        What do you like about blogging?
        "Writing’s quite solitary so I love that you can connect with writers from everywhere. Bloggers are also very supportive and willing to help. It’s a very interactive community and full of great information and resources! I also like that you can write without being too structured or having to worry about plots!" [And the feedback is instant, unlike with the book that you are writing now, which won't be read for ages.]
        Has it benefited your career, do you think? If so, how?
        "It definitely has – in terms of promotion, anyway. Through my Marsha Moore blog (which I do not apply the same comment-returning principles to –  and the difference in followers and comments is very clear!), I’ve ‘met’ writers who have helped me promote my travel guides. They’ve given me blurbs, contacted other bloggers and even helped me get featured in print publications. None of it would have happened without my blog. I have also met agents through my blog who’ve given me invaluable advice and support.
        Did your publisher/agent encourage or ask you to blog?
        I had my Marsha Moore blog pre-publishing deal. My Talli Roland blog came about because I’d just signed a publishing deal. My publisher didn’t ask me to do it but I’d read so much about the importance of on-line platforms so I knew I wanted to do it."
        Words of warning?
        "Blogging can take over your life if you let it! I have very set hours for blogging and I only do it after my writing work is done. [God, you're disciplined!] Also, be careful what you put out there – in your posts and your comments on other blogs – because if agents etc Google you, your comments as well as your posts come up." [VERY good advice!]
        Thanks so much, Marsha / Talli! Excellent points. And we are going to enjoy looking at your blog on August 22nd. I hope you'll have it nice and tidy for our visit!.

        You can also follow Marsha on Twitter as @marshawrites and @talliroland

        Tuesday, 10 August 2010

        SYNOPSIS SPOTLIGHT - Dan Holloway

        When blogging about synopses recently, I offered to post here for public comment any synopses you wanted help with. So, here is the first one. The brave writer is regular blog-reader, Dan Holloway.

        I'm going to kick off by putting my own comments here first. Mainly because I'm colossally under pressure with deadlines at the moment so I may not manage to comment again in the next couple of days. (But I will be watching, so please play nicely!)

        So, my thoughts on Dan's synopsis
        Rather obviously, it's longer than is recommended. Much longer... It's over 2,100 words long, if you want to know. So, it is a detailed outline, not a synopsis. It has the virtue of showing a potential agent or publisher that Dan can write and that he has really nailed the plot in fine detail. However, it is so much too long that the agent or publisher simply won't read it properly. This does not mean that it would necessarily be rejected on that basis, but it does mean that a grumpy agent or publisher's first thoughts would be a) this writer hasn't realised that synopses must be short - why has he not realised this? - and b) this looks like a writer who isn't ruthless enough with his own words.

        Now, I happen to know that Dan is ruthless with his own words in one sense: he thinks about them all and knows how they each work. He loves words and he loves playing with them. But, he is not ruthless enough about getting rid of them.

        What I've done is put in bold the most important bits, the bits which contain the most relevant info. Clearly, there's then a huge amount of story that I have not bolded, which Dan would need to find a way to squash to its barest bones in order to make the beginning and the end hang together. Also, the other characters, as long as not minor, need a sentence each at the most.

        As two examples of details that should not be here, see the para beginning: "When Tommy discovers him..." You don't need to say what sort of wine it was, or that Becky had reurned from three months in Eastern Europe, or the details of the content of the papers Charles left. If Dan goes through and removes everything of that sort of level, it would probably cut about 400 words, which would be a good and easy start.

        I also have a radical suggestion. There is no reason why you could not offer two synopses - the properly pared down one of no more than two sides, and then the fuller one (though still, I suggest, pared down). It is highly likely that that agent or publisher would only read the shorter one, but at least the longer one is there if they happen to want further clarificiation. This IS a radical suggestion and I've never heard it before. I cannot see how it would damage someone's chances - you are not giving the agent more work or asking them to read something, merely providing it, should they want it. But it would be essential that the short synopsis is properly short.

        Oh, and by the way, I think the story sounds great! It deserves a much neater synopsis.

        Here is Dan's synopsis:

        What would you give up to be happy? Your principles? Your sanity? Your children?

        The Company of Fellows
        Dan Holloway
        Thriller: 97,000 words

        The search for an Oxford professor’s killer drives his former protégé back into the world that drove him to a breakdown 12 years earlier. The Company of Fellows takes place in contemporary Oxford, in the University and the affluent north of the city, at the end of September before the students return for the new academic year.

        Tommy West, 35, atheist, turned his back on a brilliant academic career when he suffered a breakdown after finishing a doctorate in Theology twelve years ago. His health has forced him to lead a life that is comfortable and intellectually unchallenging. Now he lives in the sensual but impersonal world of luxury design, where a combination of taste and uncanny empathy has made him wealthy. Exquisite things shield him from the world outside and satisfy his need for instant pleasure. They are the sanctuary and the prison he has inhabited alone since college.

        Emily Harris, 36, devout Christian, is a Detective Chief Inspector with Thames Valley CID
        , the job she wanted since she was a little girl. She has a happy but childless marriage to David, whom she met at church. Despite the terrible things she has seen at work and the bitter disappointments she has experienced at home, she has remained centred, and faithful, and good. David is the only man she has loved since Tommy left her eighteen years ago because she wouldn’t sleep with him. They haven’t seen each other since college.

        Rosie Lu, 26, is Emily’s DS.
        She moved to England from Hong Kong as a teenager, on the eve of the handover to China in 1997. She is cultured and intelligent, a side of herself she is happy to hide behind lipstick, leather, and loud music; Rosie still lives the life of a Bohemian student in the rented flat that she shares with her pet chameleon, named Chris after Chris Patten, last governor of Hong Kong and Chancellor of Oxford University.

        Charles Shaw, 53, is Professor of Ethics at Christ Church, wildly rich, and Tommy’s former supervisor. He has devoted his career to the study of pleasure, and devoted his life to its pursuit. He believes that the greatest pleasures are the ones for which we have to wait, like the pleasure of old wine. Haydn Shaw, 43, is his estranged wife. She married Charles at the very start of her academic career and is now a successful lecturer at the University, specialising in the Sociology of China. She has lived with Becky Shaw, her 18 year-old daughter, since the night Becky’s twin sister Carol was stillborn and Charles walked out on them.

        Barnard Ellison and Hedley Sansom had been lecturers at Christ Church when the Shaws separated. Ellison remained there, with his wife Jane and their two children. He is now Professor of Old Testament History. Sansom, who moved abroad after his first wife Valerie committed suicide, returned with his second wife, Clarissa, to become College Dean.

        When Professor Shaw’s lawyer dies on Tommy’s doorstep, leaving him only a box of research papers for an unpublished book, £98,000, and a plea from the Professor to find someone who is trying to kill him and to take care of his daughter, Tommy has to choose between his sensual cocoon and a return to the old life that drove him to the edge of insanity. What follows for Tommy, from the moment he makes the choice not to call the police, and goes to see the Professor only to find him dead, is a pursuit of the truth that becomes a desperate battle to fend off another breakdown. Tommy’s safe new world is blown further apart when he finally calls the police to report the lawyer’s death, and opens the door only to find himself staring at Emily.

        Tommy’s journey takes place in an Oxford darkened by the shadows not of its crumbling spires, but of irrevocable choices, of the prices people have paid for pursuing their own happiness, and the prices they have paid for sacrificing it.

        When Tommy discovers him, Charles is dead, in his own house, at a table laid with a banquet for one, accompanied by bottles of two of the world’s finest wines opened and empty, and a suicide note that says only There is nothing left to wait for. Emily breaks the news to Haydn and to Becky, who has just returned from 3 months in Eastern Europe. Haydn’s reaction to his note is that he must finally have enjoyed the pleasure he spent his life and career anticipating. Emily is unable to tell if her coldness is a result of hate, indifference or an incapacity for emotion. The papers Charles left Tommy contain wine catalogues and academic articles, going back to a piece on iconography by Bulgarian scholar Krista Markova from 1989.

        Amongst them he discovers what appears to be a drawing of a miniature torture instrument. Becky begs Tommy to help her find Charles’ killer. She goes with him to the Professor’s house to collect a bequest of wines, but refuses to help him fetch them from the cellar. They are even finer and rarer than those from Charles’ last meal, one of them being the second finest vintage ever made of the Hungarian pudding wine, Tokaji Eszencia. This convinces Tommy that the hedonist Charles, who had yet to taste his finest wine, didn’t kill himself but was murdered.

        At Charles’ memorial service Ellison’s eulogy reveals that Charles’ book was about the theology of parenthood. At the wake, Becky introduces Tommy to Dr Knightley, Haydn’s obstetrician. Knightley tells Tommy about Charles’ obsession with conducting thought experiments about maximizing the pleasure of experiences, such as a perfect seduction lasting almost twenty years. Becky explains that her twin, Carol, was stillborn, and that Knightley blames himself for the death. She also tells Tommy about threatening letters Charles had received before he died, taunting him with the biblical verse Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated, a reference to God’s choice to redeem one of Isaac’s twin sons, and to condemn the other.

        Tommy meets the Sansoms over dinner with Haydn and Becky. He discovers that grief over her own childlessness, compounded by Charles’ neglect of his own children, drove Hedley’s first wife, Valerie, to suicide shortly after Becky and Carol were born. After that Hedley left Oxford for the continent.

        When Emily attends Knightley’s suicide at the Women’s Health Centre, memories of her own visits make her question both her faith and her feelings for David, and as she battles with her repressed anger towards the man who cannot give her a child she struggles to figure out what place Tommy now has in her life, and what kind of father he would have been.

        Hedley reveals to Tommy that the reason for Dr Knightley’s suicide wasn’t remorse that he had failed to save Carol. “[He] didn’t kill himself because he let her die. He killed himself because he let her live.” From this moment Tommy knows Charles’ papers, including the drawing of the torture instrument, relate not to a warped thought experiment, but to a real experiment. Alone and frightened of his thoughts, Tommy calls the few people he knows, but the only person he reaches is Rosie, whose number Emily had given him to stop him calling her at home. He goes round and they bond at once. Despite increasing worries that his returning illness is blurring his behaviour, when Tommy wakes up with her he knows it feels right.

        Amongst Charles’ things Tommy discovers a recording of the professor’s voice describing the torture instrument’s use in a trepanning procedure. He finds himself plagued by flashbacks of a dead girl, who looks like Becky, staring at him with harrowed, pleading eyes, a needle hanging from her arm. Then Tommy finds a file computer that shows the instrument was part of a sick sexual experiment involving a baby. It is only his flashbacks that drive him on, desperate to protect Becky from a truth he knows is pulling his sanity apart. As strongly as Becky seems drawn to Tommy as a surrogate father, he is drawn by the urge to look after her.

        Tommy follows Charles’ movements after the twins’ birth to Spain, from where he discovers that Ellison took Carol to use in the experiment. On his return he takes Rosie to a concert where he hears the song that plays in his flashbacks; he remembers that after his breakdown he had watched a prostitute, the image of Becky, die from an overdose. Terrified, he had left her in her squalid room. Now helping Becky find her father’s killer is his only way of achieving expiation. Seeing from the presence of workers’ vans that Charles’ house is already being refurbished, he returns to the basement. The decorator, one of the contractors Tommy regularly uses, tells him the work is being done at Hedley’s request, and shows him proof in the stripped layers of paint that Carol didn’t die as a baby, but that Charles had raised her there until just a few months ago, before raping and killing her for his own pleasure.

        Tommy confronts the Sansoms. Hedley, convinced Charles kept Carol alive before murdering her, and wanting evidence to take to the police, believed Clarissa had killed him out of revenge because Hedley’s obsession with Charles’ guilt for Valerie’s death that meant he had never been a proper husband to her. Clarissa had believed Hedley to be guilty, exacting revenge for Valerie’s suicide.

        Jane Ellison reveals that she has always known about her husband’s sexual thought experiments but as long as they remained in his mind said nothing to protect their children.

        As he prepares dinner for Haydn and Becky at their house, Tommy finds proof that Haydn killed Charles. Before taking it to Emily, he confesses his investigation to Rosie; she forgives him; they celebrate by opening a bottle of the wine Charles left him, but it is not the wine it should be. Tommy realises Charles has switched it with the wine he drank the day he died – now he believes Charles killed himself after all and framed Haydn. He goes to let Becky know but she tells him that she is, in fact, Carol; Charles raised her in secret for 18 years, giving her the best of everything; he intended her to be with Tommy – she has killed Becky and come back from Eastern Europe to take her place. Charles has indeed framed Haydn.

        For Tommy, the journey has been one of slow descent towards breakdown. It is lightened by his growing relationship with Rosie, by the possibility of a new friendship with Emily, and by the reawakening of his academic brain as he works through Charles’ papers. At the same time his decline feels inevitable, presided over by the haunting figure of Becky and hastened by the journey deeper into the sickening thought experiments of the Professors, until he finds himself faced with a choice from which he cannot hide: to condemn Haydn or to condemn Carol? But he finally escapes his descent towards madness when his rediscovered friendship with Emily gives him the strength to face the choice, and its consequences, without collapsing under their weight. Tommy chooses Haydn’s freedom over Carol’s.

        Weeks later, over dinner with the convalescing Tommy, Haydn admits she has known from the moment “Becky” returned from Eastern Europe that she was really Carol. She had made the choice never to let on – after all, Carol was her daughter too. After Haydn leaves, Tommy receives a letter from Charles that explains everything.. Charles had set out an experiment to be the perfect parent. He paid Knightley to fake Carol’s death and raised her alone. He selected Tommy as her future partner for his taste and his bipolar tendency; caused his breakdown so he wouldn’t start another relationship but gave him the tools to get well; then killed his own twin, from whom he had been separated when they were adopted, intending the hunt for his killer to trigger Tommy’s recovery and introduce him to Becky. Everything – from Becky’s red hair to Charteris’ heart attack – was part of his plan.

        Shortly before Carol was born, Charles fell in love, but kept his obligation to Carol, the 18 year delay only enhancing his ultimate pleasure. Now he has discharged his duty to Carol he can finally pursue his own happiness.

        Tommy faces his final choice – does he go after Charles, meaning Carol finds out she wasn’t the most important thing in her father’s life after all? He burns the letter and calls Rosie. Charles, with nothing left to wait for, begins his life in Bulgaria with Krista Markova.

        Sunday, 8 August 2010

        SELLING OUT?

        I've always known that if I wanted to write a best-selling novel, rather than a critically acclaimed one, I would have two choices:
        1. Come up with a great commercial idea and write it in a stripped back, fast style, leaving out what I think are the lovely bits - the meaningful ideas or powerful description.
        2. Hope for the Unpredictable Fairy to bless my book.
        Now, however, there is something so rotten in the state of book-buying that the same applies even if you don't want to write a best-selling novel but just one that earns enough to stay in print for a reasonable amount of time and keep your publisher happy. Being critically acclaimed used to do that for an author, whereas now, volume of sales is far, far more important to most publishers - understandably, in many ways - and therefore to writers if we want to stay published, let alone survive financially.

        This is not about the recession. It's not about ebooks. It's much more because of price-cutting over the last seven years. This means that publishers have to sell more books - shift more units, as they charmingly put it. They can do this either by working harder to sell more of the full range, or by choosing to publish only books which will sell in large numbers.

        Overwhelmingly, they are choosing the latter. This leaves writers with two choices:
        1. Come up with a great commercial idea and write it in a stripped back, fast style, leaving out what I think are the lovely bits - the meaningful ideas or powerful description.
        2. Um.
        This applies equally to those deciding to self-publish. You will be equally dominated by the fact that readers nowadays won't pay enough for a book to keep its writer in food and clothing.

        But, in fact, we do have more choices, if we open our eyes a bit wider:
        1. Come up with a great commercial idea and write it in a stripped back, fast style, leaving out what I think are the lovely bits - the meaningful ideas or powerful description.
        2. Decide that writing what we want to write won't sell or let us be/stay published but do it anyway because we love it.
        3. Do 2, and also find other ways to earn money - diversify, building a portfolio of writing-related or other activities to support our writing.
        Why am I saying this now? Because it has become the case this year, for me and very many writers, that my "core" business - writing full-length books - no longer earns me anything more than derisory money. 90% of my income this year has not come through a publisher. (A terrible truth for agents, too.)

        So, as well as diversifying, which I'm already doing successfully, I'm now also going to be compromising. Specifically, I am now using a machete while redrafting my work in progress, leaving behind what I hope is a great commercial idea written in a stripped back, fast style, subsuming many of my favourite bits - the meaningful ideas or powerful description. And then I hope - and my agent firmly believes - it will be ready to sell, and we hope lots and lots of lovely readers will want to buy it. Suprisingly, with my reader's hat on, I rather like what I'm left with... It's fast-paced, exciting and fun. If I was a young reader, I hope I'd like it. After all, I want my readers to enjoy themselves above all. So, maybe there's no compromise - it's just a different way of writing. It might even be better.

        Selling out? Personally, I call it selling. I call it doing a job of work and doing it as well as I can. If people don't want to read something else, who am I to say they must?
        Edited to insert my subsequent comment from the conversation that follows, because I need you to know this: "Thanks for all your comments, people. However, I've not made myself clear. This is not some theoretical whinge; this is not about a definition of commercial; and any comment about books that are being published now or recently has no impact on my point. This is about one thing: what publishers are saying yes to NOW and what authors are earning now and in the next round of royalty cheques. (Books that have been published are not books that publishers are saying yes to NOW.)

        I have been talking to a lot of agents over the last few weeks, as well as authors who have been dropped or whose advances have been slashed. Here's the situation: books which would have been accepted 18 months ago are now not being; publishers are pulling the plug or threatening to pull the plug on commissioned books if sales of the first ones are not doing well enough; and the next round of royalty cheques are going to be seriously down for most writers.

        Yes, writers have never been able to earn decently from many sorts of writing but now those sorts of writing are fewer and the amounts being earned on all but the most "commercial" books are slashed.

        Definition of commercial - simple: sells a lot. It doesn't mean bad: it means popular. End of.

        Sorry to sound so dogmatic, so pessimistic and so harsh. We will find a way through this but you need to know that the situation for most writers and would-be writers is very very difficult if what we want to do is earn directly from book sales."
        It's worth also adding that Allan Guthrie, who is not only a successful author but also an agent with Jenny Brown Associates, mentioned this post on Twitter, calling it "despressing but stunningly accurate." He sees this as an agent, and they are at the front line. They see it shortly before authors do.

        (I will be talking about this in Glasgow on Wednesday 11th August - upstairs at the Universal Bar, in Sauchiehall Lane, just behind the Waterstone's store on Sauchiehall Street. This is an informal gathering, free to enter, and happens every month, with two speakers each time. My fellow speaker is Linda Strachan. DO COME! Doors open 7.30.)

        Thursday, 5 August 2010


        Bugger, I am now under serious pressure from Twitter "friends" to say something sensible on this topic. OK, here's the sensible thing: do not make people think that you are going to say something piercing and helpful, when you might not be.

        Thing is, I blogged on Tuesday about synopses and foolishly promised to come back today to add something about how to do a synopsis for a non-linear or unconventional structure. Looking at it more closely, I never said I was going to say anything at all piercing, did I? Meh.

        This whole question was precipitated by the following email from a blog-reader some time ago:
        "I've been working on a couple of synopses recently, and it occurred to me that synopses are usually fairly linear in structure.  But what if your novel has an unconventional narrative structure?  For example: a story interspersed with flashbacks or dream sequences?  A crime novel broken up by chapters which cut away to a murder taking place somewhere else?  A narrative that shifts POV from one character to another?  And so on - not necessarily the next James Joyce, but not a linear 3rd person narrative!

        "With a story written in such a manner, what do you think is the best way form a synopsis around it, making the agent aware of its particular style?  A brief comment at the start of the synopsis?  Attempting (somehow) to replicate the structure within the synopsis?  Or something else?"
        These sensible and lucid questions reveal two wrong beliefs: that a synopsis must relate the story in the same way it is told in your book, and that there is one perfect format within which a synopsis should fit.

        No. There is no one prescribed format. There are, literally, more ideal formats for synopses than there are books. The only wrong ones are those that are too long, too detailed or too anything except clear. Simply tell the story in any way that  fulfils the purpose of a synopsis - to show the agent or publisher that you've got your story sorted and what it is like.

        Let me unpick the specific questions. Obviously, I don't know the details of the stories suggested, but I will try to offer an example of how you might do it.

        "For example: a story interspersed with flashbacks or dream sequences?" I would probably tell the main story in one paragraph and then say, "The story is interspersed with flashbacks in which Jake is taken back to a former life which he gradually begins to remember." And then one sentence which indicates the importance of this, perhaps explaining why the flashbacks occur.

        "A crime novel broken up by chapters which cut away to a murder taking place somewhere else?" Again, I would probably tell the main story in one para, and then say, "At intervals, the story cuts away to a brutal murder of a young woman on a Greek island one sultry summer a generation earlier." And then I'd give a sentence to show why this is crucial / interesting.

        "A narrative that shifts POV from one character to another?" It may not be necessary to say this at all - it depends how crucial it is to the understanding of your story's beauteousness. But, if I felt it was crucial - not to the story, where it obviously is crucial, but to the synopsis, where it might not be - I'd mention it, probably after telling the main story / MC / main theme. For example, I might say, "The story is told mainly from Ella's point of viewpoint, but at intervals it moves to Sebastian's." And possibly, not not necessarily, a sentence to show why or how.

        "With a story written in such a manner, what do you think is the best way form a synopsis around it, making the agent aware of its particular style?  A brief comment at the start of the synopsis?  Attempting (somehow) to replicate the structure within the synopsis?  Or something else?" Whatever suits your story best, in the shortest and simplest way possible.

        Important point: if any agent or publisher tells you his own preferred format for a synopsis, this is helpful but not to be taken as a universal ideal. It will doubtless conflict with someone else's ideal. The simple reason for this is that there is, as I say, no one correct way to do it. We're all trying to help you but the more detailed our efforts, the worse it becomes. 

        Extra points for clarity (I hope!):
        1. Just because your story has a complex structure, does not mean that its complexity must be conveyed in the synopsis. Authors tend to get very hung up on their beautiful structure - I tend to feel that, unless you've been really original, you should leave that to the story itself and just make your synopsis as simple as possible.
        2. With a non-linear structure, copying the structure of the book in the synopsis is probably not a good idea, as it is likely to be too long and complicated. Better to say, for example, "Woven between this is the story of..." or "The story moves between ... and ... " or "Meanwhile, as Sukey is dealing with her recalcitrant weight problem, Jeff is snow-boarding with llamas." 
        3. Agents and publishers have read many different structures. They do not need everything spelled out. Just capture the story, calmly and coherently. 
        4. Don't get clever in your synopsis - this is not a time to show off. Yes, hone the words perfectly and make every word do its job precisely, but the synopsis is a functional exercise, not a display.
        5. Imagine you are pitching your book to someone and that you have more time than the usual 10 seconds of their attention span. You have them for a whole minute - what would you tell them if you had one minute?
        In short
        I'm not saying it's easy, or fun. I'm saying it's not as hard as anyone thinks, because you are not trying to fit your complex story into a set format: you are simply finding the clearest, simplest way to tell the story. So, be ruthlessly concise. If in doubt, leave it out. (I would quite like to put that in capitals and delete everything else.)

        I feel I've let you down a bit with this post if you were expecting more detail. So, I have a suggestion: let's have a Synopsis Surgery. If any of you would like me to post your draft or problem synopsis on this blog, email it to me at writingtutor@hotmail.co.uk and I will post the first two up here for anyone to comment on. No specific rules: just send me what you'd like posted, as an email attachment, remembering to include an explanation of the problem you are having. But I can't take any responsibility for what happens thereafter - obviously, I can't control what people will say (though I will remove comments that abuse anyone other than me) or what people might do with your synopsis. It's up to you...

        Anyway, whatever you do with a synopsis of any sort, here's the key: make it short, make it simple, make it show your story in a crisp, bright light.

        Tuesday, 3 August 2010


        I have just seen a terrible synopsis. (Not from a P2P client - I would never use a client's material in this way, even anonymously.) No, someone passed it to me, after receiving it from a friend who was wanting advice. Thing is, he didn't actually want advice about the synopsis, because he believed it was brilliant and couldn't understand why agents were rejecting him. But, 'twas awful.

        Why? Mainly, it rambled, containing the most ridiculous level of detail - for example, specifying the meal at which a piece of action took place, and the day of the week, and what a character was wearing during the conversation. (Trust me: it wasn't necessary.) It was an outline, not a synopsis, and I will explain the difference below.

        [Also, I recently had a question from a blog-reader about how to write the synopsis for a non-linear plot. I'm going to cover that separately on Thursday.]

        Anyway, here are my basic thoughts on synopses. (By the way, I have already blogged here and here.)

        I was going to start by saying that I don't see the problem with the little darlings. Then I read that first post and realised that I'd either be lying or I've got a very short memory. I guess what's happened between then and now is that I've realised the truth about synopses and got to grips with them myself.

        The truth? That their problems are greatly exaggerated and that writers worry far too much about them. OK, so I don't love writing them; I find them boring and I don't like how they remove the style and voice that are such an important part of what I'm trying to do in the book. But it seems to me that they are the easiest part of the package you send to agents and publishers.

        The actual rules are few and simple:
        • Make it short - as short as you can while giving the bones of the story. Leave out all details, including details about minor characters and minor plot strands. Even leave out mention of minor characters if they aren't necessary for the main story-line.
        • Use the present tense.
        • Use the third person, even if your story is written in the first person.
        • Convey a sense of the style and feeling of the story - for example, if it's humorous, this needs to be obvious, not by saying, "This is a hilarious story", but through the action conveyed. If historical, we need to know period. Setting should also be included. The feeling of this story must come over in the synopsis.
        • Do say what happens in the end, simply to show you've got this wrapped up.
        A synopsis is not a blurb or pitch. A blurb (in UK-speak) is the nifty, enticing paragraph which goes on the back cover and in eleventy-million other places, such as Amazon and every blog or website that mentions your book. A pitch is almost the same, the only difference being that you'd use it to hook the publisher or agent in the first place. In US-speak, a blurb is that puff / quote that you might hope a well-known writer will give you to endorse your book. Whatever it is, a blurb or pitch is short and enticing, whereas a synopsis is longer and functional.

        A synopsis is also not an outline. An outline is a episode-by-episode account of the action in your book, in the order in which it happens. You would only need to do an outline either a) for your own use, so that you can keep track of the action, or b) if your editor asks for one.

        In length and detail, a synopsis is in between these things. And you can do it in any way that best serves the purpose of any synopsis: to show that your story works, from beginning to end; and to show clearly what sort of story this is, what it is like.

        So, why the problems? I am sympathetic because I agree that synopses are uncomfortable things that strip your story bare and make you feel exposed. But your story will not be rejected on the basis of your synopsis - it will be rejected on the basis of the idea / hook / pitch in the covering letter (because that's what has to sell the book to publisher, bookseller and reader) and / or on the actual writing.

        Let me give you a few more tips:
        • Indicate whose point(s) of view the story is told through; if present tense, say so.
        • It may be single-spaced, even though the actual writing sample and your MS must be double-spaced.
        • If you have several POVs or time-scales or settings, or a particular structure, indicate this, in whatever way seems most sensible and clear. (More on that on Thursday.)
        • Unanswered / rhetorical questions are not recommended - remember that the purpose of your synopsis is to indicate that and how your story works, not to entice a future reader.
        Here are two tips from blog-readers, taken from when I blogged about this before.
        Emma Darwin: "The best tip I've ever had for writing synopses is to write it in a single sentence: your hook, if you like. Then expand that to a paragraph. Then finally expand that to a full page. That way, instead of agonising over what to leave out and feeling the book looks limp and lifeless as a result, you're starting with the core conflict, and only adding what fleshes it out most effectively."

        And Gemma Noon: "Extra bit of advice, though: get someone to read through your synopsis who hasn't got a blind clue what your book is about - you've never discussed it, they've never beta read it, never seen a draft if possible. It is ridiculously easy to leave out crucial info in a synopsis because you know the info backwards; an editor / agent doesn't." 

        And the main advice: if you can leave it out, leave it out. The synopsis is absolutely the best place to kill darlings. When you edit your work, use a red pen; when you edit your synopsis, use a scythe.

        See you on Thursday for a little bit more, to reassure you about non-linear stories.

        Meanwhile: calm down! It's only a synopsis!

        Sunday, 1 August 2010


        I need to scotch a myth: that if you try for long enough you will succeed. You see, people say you just have to keep trying, keep sending your work out, and eventually you'll succeed, but it's not true.

        I was reminded of this in a recent post of mine, when Dan Holloway, whom I rely on to pick me up on any woolly thinking, suggested that I seemed to be over-praising perseverance. Since I can't find that now - though I'm sure he will! - I can't remember exactly what I said, but I do remember promising to blog about why perseverance sucks, because I agree with him. So, here I am.

        Perseverance in sending your MS out is a total waste of time if you don't also persevere in improving what you're sending.

        Being rejected by one or eight publishers might just mean you sent it to the wrong one or eight publishers. So, yes, sending it to number nine might indeed do the trick. So, yes, of course, plain perseverance - dogged stubbornness - can work. And, indeed, you might have written something brilliant which silly publishers have so far failed to recognise. You could stick a pin in a list of publishers and send it out one at a time and eventually you might hit the right one.

        Try that, if you wish.

        But, there is a much more useful, important and clever form of perseverance: persevering to get it right. Persevere in trying to find out what you might be doing wrong; persevere in trying to write something better, or more marketable, or better honed, or more beautifully presented - any of those things. But don't simply persevere in sending your work out.

        The mountain you are trying to climb if you want to be published is not "how to find a publisher"; it is "how to write a book with sufficient readers that it should be published." The difference between those two goals is sometimes small, but the difference in your approach to the goals will be crucially different. It will make all the difference to your writing and a great deal of difference to the length of your journey.

        So, please, focus your perseverance on your book and yourself, not on the act of perseverance. There is a difference between intelligent determination and dogged stubbornness.