Wednesday, 29 September 2010


This question was posted on the Contact page above, where anyone can request a blog post from me. I thought I'd put the request here, answer the question, and make an extra, unasked-for, comment. For clarity, I am only reproducing this here because the writer put it publicly on the blog; I would never do this to something sent to me as a personal email.

Greg said...
Hi Nicola, I'm a new writer in the States, although screenplays are my game. Coincidentally, I'm currently adapting the biography of Robert Stanford-Tuck (Battle of Britain Ace) for the big screen. Well, that's where I hope it ends up, anyway. Having said that, my kids and I came up with a concept for a children's book based on an word game we invented. We laugh almost constantly while we play, and virtually anyone within earshot laughs too, whether they like it or not. I plan to follow your sage advice and, once this movie business is out of the way, have a go at our game in book form. The book will need illustration in my opinion. What's the protocol for submitting a manuscript to a publisher in such circumstances? Need one include illustration? Or simply the promise of illustration? Thanks for a great site.
So, here's my answer to the important question about illustration.
Do NOT include illustration. The only time you should include illustration is if you are actually an illustrator and you are approaching a publisher as such. Not if you are the writer. The publisher will find the illustrator. If you wish to add some illustrations just to give an idea, then there's nothing to stop you, but you must make it absolutely clear that you are not expecting or wishing the publisher to accept them. So, don't promise illustration either.

If you have an illustrator friend whose drawings you'd love to use, forget it. If you admire some illustrations and wish to use that artist, forget it. Leave the illustrating side to the publisher. (If, on the other hand, you plan to self-publish an illustrated book, for crying out loud get a professional illustrator. Please! But that's not what Greg is doing.)

And my extra comment? Unasked for. It's cautionary advice.  Greg said, "We laugh almost constantly while we play, and virtually anyone within earshot laughs too, whether they like it or not." Already, I am cringing. I just hope that Greg is not going to use this line, or anything similar, in his query.

Kids laugh when someone breaks wind. It doesn't make it worth putting in a book.

Seriously. I don't mean to sound snarky. I just want to make this point: never tell an agent or publisher about anyone else's reaction to your book, idea, words, anything. It's one of the biggest turn-offs, means nothing and marks you out as a newbie. There's nothing wrong with being a newbie - we all were once - but you must not sound like one.

So, Greg, I'm really glad you came here because I hope to set you on the right route. You'll find stacks more advice about submitting your work, but I want you first to think about the idea for your book. Does it really work as a book? Sounds to me as though it should perhaps stay as a game? Or am I just being very unimaginative? Screenplays, games, books, illustrations - four very, very different things. I know you know that, but just make sure you know exactly in what ways they are different.

Good luck!!

Sunday, 26 September 2010


What is high-concept?
Essentially, a book with an extra-strong hook. A high-concept novel is one which is easy to sell because the idea has wow factor and is easy to explain very quickly. The wow factor often comes from a sense of, “Why didn’t I think of that? That’s going to sell in shedloads. Damn it.” 

Sometimes, in a high-concept book, the premise will sound unbelievable, which is part of the sit-up-and-notice factor. Snakes on a Plane is a film with a high-concept idea – you almost feel you must go and see it just to discover how such a wacky idea could be a film. You may still wonder once you’ve seen it, but at least they’ve got your money by then. (Hooking sometimes hurts the fish.)
In a high-concept book the stakes are often high, at least for that main character(s) if not for the whole world. Your main character needing to lose weight in time to fit into a holiday bikini is not high stakes. The end of the world being nigh, or a man needing to save his son’s life, are very high stakes, for the world and for the man and his son respectively.

Below are some books which would be classed as high-concept. In each case, the essence is easy to explain briefly, they have a sit-up-and-notice factor and high stakes, and they were very successful in terms of both critical acclaim and sales. (Though critical acclaim is not necessary for high-concept.)

Life of Pi by Yann Martel – boy ship-wrecked on powerless boat with dying zebra, hyena and tiger called Richard Parker.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon – an autistic savant with a fear of yellow finds a dead dog and sets out to solve its killing.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy – a man will do anything to avoid having to kill his young son, as they flee across America in the horrifying aftermath of global warming. Civilisation has died but they must keep hope alive.

Note, however, that your book does not have to be high-concept for it to be published, so don’t go hunting high-concept at the expense of good writing. In fact, if every book were high-concept, reading would become a nightmare of over-excitement. But if you do happen to come up with such an idea, it is more likely to fit the “what publishers want” category. And I am insanely jealous of you and may have to consider killing you.

Oh, by the way, do NOT say in your covering letter or query, "My novel is fabulously high-concept." This is for them to judge and you to grin smugly about in a place where they can't see you.

Thursday, 23 September 2010


A very good writer I know, with poems and short stories to her credit, has sent me a covering letter for your comment. I know she's been working really hard on this, and she's got it honed down to something very lean and neat. But has she got it right? What do we all think?

Please note that this is for a UK submission, not a US-style query.

Dear Ms./Mr. AGENT,

I enclose the synopsis and first three chapters of my 54,000-word literary novel, Little Dead Boys.

Little Dead Boys is a suburban fairytale about a couple on the verge of breakup who each become obsessed with their own family mysteries. Kit goes to her mother's house in the suburbs to sort out her relationship with her girlfriend Gretchen and her art project, but there she gets tangled up in the mystery of a decades-old child killer. Gretchen needs to figure out what she’s doing with music school, her girlfriend, and her lover – but all she cares about is the mother she never met.

Last year I graduated with Distinction from Glasgow University's Creative Writing MLitt, after which I won a New Writers' Award from the Scottish Book Trust and the Gillian Purvis Award. I have also been awarded a writing retreat at West Dean College. I have around 80 short stories, poems and personal essays in print.

My writing has been compared to your client AUTHOR'S NAME due to its quirky fantasy elements/fairy-tale tone/LGBT appeal (DELETE AS APPROPRIATE). I very much hope that you will like what you read and that you will want to see the rest of Little Dead Boys. I have enclosed an SASE for your reply, or you are welcome to email.

Yours sincerely,


Monday, 20 September 2010


I'm in the process of composing my list of resources to go at the end of Write To Be Published. Obviously, I have a list I made all on my ownsome, but what would you like? Now is your chance to nominate your favourite blogs and websites.

Just add them to a comment, including a tiny something to describe them. Please include the whole URL, even if you can't make a live link.

I will then organise them - at my discretion - into a list for this blog and also a shorter list for the book. I want generous blogs with quality information. Do include blogs by unpublished writers but I will probably not include them in the book, as my focus for that is on expert advice, more than simple experience of trying to get published.

And to the acerbic commenter who, when I asked something like this before, accused me of using you to write the book: erm, it's the BOOK OF THE BLOG! *shakes head in bemusement / amusement*


Because readers care and publishers care. So, if you want readers and a publisher - or even just one of those - you must create conflict for us to care about.

Without conflict, there’s no story. That’s not quite true. I’ll rephrase: without conflict there’s no story that anyone would actually bother to read. Therefore, lack of sufficient conflict is a very important and common reason why publishers reject books. Conflict is the thing we care about, that threatens the main character, that the character struggles against. So, whether it’s unrequited love, unrevenged hatred, unatoned remorse, or unattained zen, conflict is central to your book and must be central when you pitch the book. Multiple conflicts (within reason) are also a good idea, because you can solve one fairly early on, giving the reader some pleasure, but keep the others till later, ratcheting up the tension.

Conflict is not literally a conflict between two people. Two characters hating each other does not make a conflict, in the context of a novel. Conflict is what carries and drives the story forward: who will win? Will the MC discover she's being stalked before the stalker kills her? Will the detective find the murderer before he strikes again? Will the woman manage to find strength to leave her abusive partner? Will the boy die of leukaemia or not? Will the girl find the strength to stand up to the bullies / stop taking drugs / speak out about her rape? Will the estranged son find peace with his father before it's too late? Conflict is the struggle in the reader's mind as he desperately wants a particular thing to happen but fears that it won't.

Think of conflict as the obstacle(s) in the way of your hero. The more daunting the obstacle, the greater the struggle, and therefore the greater the excitement and pleasure when the conflict is overcome.

Make sure your conflict is one the reader will believe in and care about. Set problems in the way of the conflict and don't deviate from the path as your characters work around those problems. New plot strand? Is it relevant to the conflict? It must be. Everything in your story should focus on either moving towards or slipping back from resolution of the conflict. The reader needs to worry all the time about whether resolution is goign to happen. Readers should be on the edge of their seats, rooting for the MC all the time, desperate for everything to work out. We do not want to be diverted by loads of irrelevancies. Or even any irrelevancies.

Don’t only think about conflicts in connection with your MC, though. You can also have bigger conflicts: for example, conflicts between races and religions; between good and evil, male and female, emotion and logic, luck and talent, superstition and science, Aristotle and Plato, red wine or white – anything that’s right for your story and your theme.

The conflicts must progress in a controlled fashion. Not in a straight line and not always in the same direction – setbacks will increase tension. But you must be absolutely in control of how quickly, slowly, smoothly or bumpily your conflict develops.

The conflict should worry the reader but also create ambivalence. For example, if the girl needs to break away from the control of her parents, don’t make those parents too starkly awful: paint some different shades so that the reader can see both sides. Things and people are rarely all good or all bad; things wished for rarely bring unadulterated joy; events feared are rarely exactly as expected; death is rarely entirely sad or survival entirely marvellous. Be subtle in the strength of your conflict and in subtlety will be your strength.

But the most important thing about conflict is, as I said at the top, that the reader should care. Different readers will care about different things. An eight-year-old child might care very much about whether she’ll be able to save up for a new Barbie; a grown man won’t. This sounds obvious, but too often writers pitch novels where I question whether anyone would care enough or whether this conflict is anything other than run-of-the-mill. Yes, in real life I care very much whether my family appreciate the casserole I am making this afternoon, and we could well have some major conflict if they don’t, but that doesn’t mean that it’s sufficient conflict for a reader.

Different genres have different needs for conflict, both in terms of level and type of conflict. In a romance, for example, a personal conflict will suffice; whereas in a high-concept thriller, you'd usually need something which threatened or affected a wider population. In a crime novel, you'd expect high conflict, because if a major or violent crime is committed there would need to be not only major motivation but also dramatic fall-out.

So, take a look at your book now. Is strong conflict central to it AND have you made it central to your pitch to publishers? If so, hooray – you’re on your way. If not, back to the drawing board.

Friday, 17 September 2010


I've just happened upon this really useful and important post by Julie Cohen about secondary characters.

Once you've read it, come back here. No, go on - READ IT.

Done? Right, well, she says everything you need to know about secondary characters having to earn their place, so I need say no more. But I want to mention a tangential point.

Julie says: "... I’ve been struggling today, because I have a character who absolutely has to exist, in order for the plot to happen. However, she also has to leave almost immediately, and not reappear for the rest of the book. To me, this screams “PLOT DEVICE” in a big way and I was struggling with how to make her pull her weight more, and therefore have a more satisfying role in the story."

It brings me to the important issue of other things that scream PLOT DEVICE. This is very much something to watch out for in your writing. It often happens that we need to get character X from A to B; or we need a reason why he performs a particular act; or something about the plot doesn't quite work or feel believable. So we think to ourselves, "Hmmm, what could I slot in to deal with this?" But things slotted in can be horribly obvious  and readers do not like them because it makes them feel manipulated. They see the hand of the author instead of the line of the story.

Yes, we use plot devices but we must disguise them.They should be neither seen nor heard, just do their job.

Thursday, 16 September 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...


After my post on Sept 11th, I hope you've all got lots of followers now. Or at least a small but perfectly-formed crowd.

Today's lesson is hashtags, and the most well-known one, #ff or #FollowFriday. (And it's Friday tomorrow, so you have one day to prepare!)

First, if you haven't already, please read my earlier posts re Twitter  - here, here and here - and make sure that you are using Tweetdeck, which is explained in the first of those. As I've said before, you don't have to use Tweetdeck, but if you don't my instructions won't make sense.

The clever computery people behind Twitter use the # to enable anyone to collect all examples of a word/phrase with a # in front of it. When you search on a #, you will also see relevant tweets from people you do not follow, which you would not otherwise see. (Stay with me - this is going to become clearer.)

Let me give you an example. Before my Edinburgh Book Festival Twitter/blogging workshop, I decided to create a hashtag for it, partly so that I could show my workshoppees and partly because I wanted to ask a question that would go round the twitterverse and allow me to see all the answers collected in one place. I needed to choose a hashtag word/phrase that no one had ever used, otherwise some of the results would be irrelevant. (I checked this by searching on a couple of possibilities until I found one with no results.) The one I chose was #NicolaTwitterWorkshop. I then told people this, in a tweet. For example, I probably tweeted something like:
What do u all love / hate reTwitter? Need to know for my edbookfest workshop - please use #NicolaTwitterWorkshop to join in
Within seconds, people were tweeting their replies and I could see all the tweets (when people remembered to include #NicolaTwitterWorkshop) appearing in one column on my Tweetdeck screen. (Instructions follow.)

You will see how this works by doing this:
  1. In Tweetdeck, click on the circle with a + in the middle. ("Add New Column") In the search box, type #NicolaTwitterWorkshop and click Search.
  2. A few seconds later, a new column appears, which may or may not have anything in it, depending on whether anyone recently said anything using that hashtag. (In some versions of Tweetdeck the columns clear themselves after a certain amount of time. During the workshop itself there was HUGE and amusing activity!)
  3. If YOU now write a tweet, including the #NicolaTwitterWorkshop, you will see your tweet first go into the All Friends column, and a few seconds later into the new column.
NB - this will ONLY make sense if you are using Tweetdeck.

What is the point of this?
Mainly, it means that anyone can have a conversation, open to all, on a particular topic, over a period of time. The conversation can continue for as long as people want. If it becomes very popular, we say it has "trended". Anyone can start a new hashtag. Suppose you were particularly annoyed or fascinated by something; you could create a hashtag and start tweeting. If it was interesting or topical enough, people might join in. (I don't recommend you start any until you've seen a few working, though. Also, you can perfectly well enjoy and use Twitter without ever starting a hashtag conversation.)

Some other uses of hashtags:
Games - for example, there's a game called #cheesebooks - you just think of the name of a book, change the title slightly so that it sounds like a cheese and tweet it with #cheesebooks in the tweet. For example, Gorgonzolaghast. Yeah, really pointless but it can be funny. Just a game while you're taking a break! These games are ongoing, and, again, anyone can invent one.

Directed conversations on a topic, at set times in the week. (Though they also continue outside those times.) For example #litchat (about books) and #writechat (about writing). To be honest, I've forgotten what times these take place. They are like the "old" chat-rooms and I don't much enjoy them - I gave up a while ago after a few experiences of being bored or infuriated by lack of knowledge shown of the industry. There are a lot of unpublished writers saying things that just aren't true, though of course there's sense spoken as well. I just get a bit frustrated by the silly bits, and don't see why I should use my leisure time to put people right. I may have just been unlucky - I admit I didn't often try. I suggest you try and see for yourself. Just do a search on each one, following the instructions above, to set up a new column. (You can delete columns whenever you want.)

Arcane Twitter "humour" - I'm not sure if I can explain this one, as it is an example of arcane Twitter language. Just take my word for it. It involves the creation of a tongue-in-cheek hashtag which you have no intention that anyone should repeat, though they might. For example, suppose you were to tweet, "Just saw a pigeon moonwalking" you might add a hashtag such as #drinkhasnotbeentaken or #itsamadworld or #whereisdavidattenboroughwhenuneedhim? So, the hashtag becomes a way of commenting on your own tweet, as a sort of aside.

And finally, #FollowFriday, or #ff...
Every Friday, everyone becomes a bit manic and starts recommending people to follow. There are two ways to do this: the wrong way and the right way.
  • The wrong way involves simply saying #ff, followed by a long list of Twitter names of people you recommend following. Most Twitter experts - ie people with lots of followers and lots of people to follow - will take not a blind bit of notice, so this is a very ineffective way of doing it. I NEVER bother to look at anyone in any of those lists. Ever.
  • The right way involves saying WHY you are recommending this person (or few people). For example, "#ff people who review and blog about books @name @name @name" etc. People will take more notice of this because it gives them a reason to know whether or not they should bother following. So, I might use categories such as "#ff these new writers on Twitter......." or "#ff people who have made my week happy ......". It just makes it more personal and gives others a reason for bothering to check the person out and follow them.

It's polite to say thank you when someone includes you in an #ff but it's not always possible / practical / easy if several people have #ffd you, or if you were away or couldn't get access to Twitter. So, don't fret if you can't.

Which reminds me that it's also polite to thank someone for RTing (retweeting - are you keeping up? I talked about that in the second post, I think.)

Edited to add: as Mary Hoffman points out, when you follow someone or are followed by them, go and see who THEY follow. That way, you can find like-minded people to follow - and be followed by.

Here ends this lesson on Twitter. Is there anything else you'd like me to cover? I know someone asked about lists, and maybe I should cover that, but it doesn't quite seem fascinating enough. :(

One thing I do want to cover though is what makes me decide to follow or not follow someone on Twitter. I'm reminded of this every day when I see the biogs of new followers and I thought it might be interesting to think about things that attract people and things that don't. There are certain things that hugely put me off, though everyone will be different, I know.

Happy tweeting!

Tuesday, 14 September 2010


Recently, Adrian Mead did a guest post for me, talking about making a business of your writing, including the important aspect of diversifying. And he promised he'd come back and talk about one particular way in which a fiction writer can diversify: write for the screen. Here he is. I'm very grateful to him for giving up his time.

Screenwriting is a huge subject, so I'm going to narrow it down and focus on some practical strategies and resources that can help you to decide if it is an area you wish to pursue.

Basically, it's adapt or die time.  If you hope to have a career as a professional writer you are going to have to diversify.  Top of your list should be getting work as a screenwriter. Why?  Well, for starters it pays considerably better than all other forms of writing.  Don't believe me? Take a look at the rates listed here -

Oh, by the way, those are the basic rates before negotiations - you would expect to get a lot more once you have some level of experience.

Later I'll give you some links where you can download free screenplays and look at the formatting.  The first thing you will notice is masses of white space on the page and a maximum length of 120 pages.  You get paid a lot more per word than you do for writing a novel and in far less time! You would also expect to be writing a number of scripts at the same time. Do the sums.

With the huge growth of internet channels, the need for multi platform content and the likes of Sky and Channel 4 expanding their homegrown drama and comedy output the opportunities for screenwriters are multiplying - if you know where to look.  However, when you get your break you must be able to hit the ground running and work like a professional from day one.

I regularly get asked to mentor novelists and playwrights who wish to break into screenwriting. Many have now gained work in the TV and film industry. In every case the ones that succeeded had talent, but more importantly they also recognized the need to think of themselves as a one person business.  They became pro active, set goals and worked on their self belief.  Perhaps most importantly they made sure they were passionate about their writing, this meant they became 100% committed to their goal of becoming a professional screenwriter. 

How committed are you?  If you wish to be able write as an enjoyable hobby and maybe earn a little from it, screenwriting is definitely not for you. It pays well because you have to work to tight deadlines and the only feasible excuse for delivering late is your sudden and unexpected death.

However, if you love films and TV and are passionate about your work, then come join me in this fascinating and all consuming area of the writing world.  It still thrills me to watch the opening credits in a darkened cinema or with a room full of friends and family as your name comes up on screen and people bring your words to life.  Of course it's egotistical!  But you've earned it and in some cases your work reaches millions of people on the same night.

But how do you get to indulge in your Premier moment?  Well, there are literally thousands of books, internet sites, videos on you tube and writers groups dedicated to the craft of screenwriting.  I will attempt to boil it all down for you to four sources.

BOOK - Teach Yourself Screenwriting  - Raymond G. Frensham
Yes, it is part of that "Teach Yourself..." series.  However, I've spent hundreds of pounds on screenwriting books and this skinny little volume is the best and still gets great reviews on Amazon.  I have no idea who Mister Frensham is but every professional screenwriter I know agrees with me.

Don't be put off by the "rules' or diagrams. My advice would be to have a go at writing a script, then consult this book.  It is like a manual for fixing your car.

CAREER GUIDE - e book  Making It As A Screenwriter - Adrian Mead
Oh yes!  Why do I think I know best?  I don't, but masses of industry professionals think this is exactly what you should read. (see testimonials on my website ; It is on the reading list of numerous Screenwriting MA and Creative Writing courses and best of all your money goes to Childline.   Download it and get everything you need to plan your career strategy.

Download from

Millions of these out there but there's an awful lot of variation in quality.  The following have lots of great material.
Should be a first call for you. You download scripts from here and there is masses of useful information.  They accept and read work from new writers.
You need to pay to join this site but it gives you access to lots of info and thousands of other filmmakers looking to find scripts, collaborate and make films.

PODCASTS - Making It As A Screenwriter - Adrian Mead
Is there no end to this man's ego? Well, actually the reason I've included this one is three fold. Folk have found this free series of 6x3 min videos very useful and hopefully so will you.

They are on the Scottish Book Trust website, which is a veritable treasure chest of information.  Here you will also find information about their mentoring scheme and their Screen Lab project.  Both schemes offer opportunities for writers wishing to cross disciplines into screenwriting or other areas of writing. It's only open to Scottish base writers and the envy of lots of other organizations - if you are not based in Scotland see if your local organization could put together something similar.

Of course the most important step you can take to build your career is to WRITE SOMETHING!  Perhaps you have a short story or a poem that would work well as a short film?  Write the script, you only need to come up with 1-30 pages, lots of white space, go on give it a go.  There are lots of great examples of short films to inspire you at

So to sum up, you need  -

    * Sample scripts.

    * Practical, bang up to date advice from people working in the industry right now.

    * An understanding of the key people you will work with and their roles. 

    * Knowledge of how to build and maintain those relationships, so they recommend you or hire you again.

    * Insider information about forthcoming opportunities for new writers.

    * A clear, simple and dynamic career building strategy.

Of course the best way to learn is to talk with people who are already working in the business and benefit from their experience. But where do you get to meet them?

Luckily for you we have put together a course to provide you with all this and much more.

If you would like to learn from successful Writers, Script Editors and Producers about how they got their break and what happens when you get hired to work in film and TV you need to grab your place now. This will be a fun, friendly and info packed day and will benefit writers of all levels who are interested in exploring a career as a screenwriter or script editor.

VENUE: St Columba's-by-the-castle
14 Johnston Terrace, Edinburgh EH1 2PW

FEE: £85.00 (includes lunch and refreshments)

DATE: Saturday Oct 2nd 2010, 10am - 5.30pm

Book your place now at and get the insider knowledge you need to build your career.

Thanks, Adrian - crystal clear and very, very interesting.

Any questions, anyone? (I'm away, but Catherine Hughes is keeping an eye on things for me.)

Saturday, 11 September 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...


Just a quick one - me doing you a favour rather than trying to tell you anything. I have removed my teacher hat for a few days.

Some of you are powering ahead as though born to tweet and others are taking it more gently. No problem - this is neither race nor competition. If you feel you're still quite a Twitter newbie and you'd like more followers, add a friendly comment to the bottom of this and if you do it right, you might collect some more. Do follow people back if you think they might be interesting or fun or nice or whatever. NB - this is only for people genuinely interested in books, writing and reading. And the comments will close when I think there are enough comments here.

ALSO, this is not an open-invitation to pesky spammers - any inappropriate (imho) comments will be removed. It is a genuine offer to help you make contacts. In your comment, say a little bit about yourself and include your Twitter name. TRY to keep your comment to around about the length of a tweet.

I'm going to be writing about hashtags, conversations and #FollowFriday in the next post in my Twitter series, scheduled for Thursday 16th Sept, so please make sure you're using Tweetdeck - I need you to have read this post and this one, before the next lesson can make sense.

(I am away at the moment - Brussels with Mr M, checking out the shops and chocolate possibilities in our first holiday for two years - but I have my trusty assistant, Catherine, keeping an eye on things. So, play nicely, please. And no, I'm not bringing you back any chocolate at all, OK?)

Tuesday, 7 September 2010


For clarity and for your own peace of mind after my blog post earlier today, In Which I Meet A Delusional Wannabe, let me define what I mean by a DW.

The woman in the story was a DW not because she thought her idea had come as a gift from above. Brahms also described the advent of an idea in those terms. But Brahms then said that "by sheer hard work I make it my own." (Except that he said it in German.)

The main reason she was a DW is because she was under the delusion that having an idea from above and then writing a novel was enough. She believed that publication was owed to her because she thought her book was good. She would not accept that it was not good enough in some way; would not accept that a hundred publishers had made a valid decision and that this should tell her something. I'm not saying she couldn't write - I haven't a clue, not having had the pleasure of reading her book. I'm saying she was not doing the right things, asking the right questions, opening her mind to the possibility that her book lacked something that might make it worth publishing. She was not prepared to work hard.

So, my definition of a DW goes like this: a delusional wannabe is someone who desperately wants to be published, falls sadly short in either ability or a publishable idea or both, AND is not prepared to work as hard as possible to find out exactly how and why she falls short in one or both of those things. A DW will never be successfully published. A DW will usually not write another book, because writing another book when your first hasn't been published is hard, very hard. But it makes all the difference between delusion and determination.

You, by virtue of the fact that you are here, that you keep coming back, that you agree with me (very important) and that you will do anything in your power to make your writing work better, are not DWs. Hooray!

That's the good news. The bad news, I'm afraid, is that NOT being a DW is not a guarantee that you will be published. But it's a very good start and underpins the whole philosophy of this blog. I try to unpick delusions and show you sensible ways to achieve your dreams. So, carry on letting your ideas comes as gifts from above, but remember that it's the sheer hard work afterwards that makes you a writer.


It is a truth fairly universally acknowledged that amongst the many trying to become published there lurk some delusional wannabes. Here's one I met earlier.
DW: "But my book is as it is. And besides, it isn't really my book"
NM: "Oh?"
DW: "No, the idea came to me from above, as a gift. It's the story I had to tell. I have to tell it."
Fine. So tell it. Just don't expect anyone to read it if it's not good enough. And you are not the first or last person to tell me that your book came as a gift from above. To be honest, that's what it often feels like when an idea hits a writer. It's called inspiration. It should be followed almost immediately by a lot of perspiration.

That was a shortened version of a very LONG conversation, during which I was trying to help a woman who claimed to have been rejected by many dozens of publishers. (I believe her. There is evidence.) She wanted to know why she'd been rejected. No, actually, she didn't want to know why. She wanted to blast the stupid publishers who were being so obtuse and ignorant that they didn't recognise a gift-horse when they saw it. This woman was not a writer; she had no idea of the craft and graft involved.

Writing is not channelling. Actually, perhaps the first draft often is - and, yes, I do know that wonderful feeling when you go into some kind of altered state and the story just flows. But the second and eleventy-millionth drafts are not channelling. They are proper hard work, needing skills which must be applied ruthlessly.

I could name this woman quite safely because she won't be reading this. How do I know? Because when I asked her whether, in her thwarted quest to become published, she read any blogs or books about writing, she had a confident answer.
"Oh no, I don't have time for that. Anyway, as I say, my book is as it is."
Struggling a little, I tried another tack.
"So, what are you writing now, while you're waiting for responses to this one?"
She looked at me blankly. (This was the first time she'd looked at me at all, so even blankly was a start.)
"Oh, I'm not writing anything else. This is the book I've got to write."
"But that will be a problem for a publisher," I said. "You need to show that you have more than one book in you. Besides, don't you want to write more?"
"God, no. I'm not doing that again!"
And she then went on and on about how it was ridiculous that all the publishers had said no, how there was nothing wrong with her book, and that it was important that it be published.

Sadly for her and frustratingly for me, neither of us achieved anything during this conversation. I gave away at least twenty minutes when I could have been speaking to other genuine writers who actually wanted advice. To be fair to her, she hadn't asked for my help. But I knew from a comment that she needed good advice and I stupidly thought she might welcome it, free and warmly offered. I was actually incredibly patient and really did want to help, but she was, without doubt, the most unhelpable person I have ever met.

(Edited to add: because so many of you seem to be worried that YOU might be delusional wannabes, I am now going to do a separate post in which I define one!)

Why am I telling you this?
Because, after many months of you saying nice things to me, I want to say something nice to you. I want to say that I hugely appreciate that none of you have fallen into the trap that this poor woman was stuck in. You have shown, by your comments and contributions that you are damned hard-working writers, seeking the best and most undelusional ways towards publication. Many of you are already published and you know how hard the business is. Many of you have been rejected many times, as I was and as most writers have been, and you believe that hard work and talent are the most likely ways through that.

So, I want to say well done, thank you and huge good luck, too. May you all find exactly the right book and write it in exactly the right way. SOON!

Why am I being so nice? I don't know. Anyone would think it was my silver wedding anniversary today or something. OH! IT IS! Better go and check the champagne's on ice.

Saturday, 4 September 2010


Well, of course it does. But how does the money side of things work, apart from there not being much of it for most of us? I was encouraged to blog about this by Suzanne, one of the volunteer readers for Write To Be Published. She said that she'd like to see something about the money side of things in the book. I probably can't include it in the book, as it doesn't fit the subject, which is more about how to get published than what happens afterwards. (Another book and one which I might well write!) So, I thought, a blog post.

Here are Suzanne's questions.

1. I think I know how advances and royalties work, but it would be good to know if what I think I know is right. (Here follow the general basics, with resources to take you further.)
An advance is the money paid by the publisher to the author before the book is published. It can range from nothing (literally) to A Lot. It is usually paid in two or three instalments. If two, it will be two out of the following: a) on signature of contract b) on delivery and acceptance of MS and c) on publication day. The advance does not have to be paid back if the book does badly or the publisher decides not to publish after all, UNLESS the MS which you finally deliver is unacceptable and you cannot make it acceptable, or you break your contract in another specified way.
"Advance" means "payment in advance of royalties". The royalty payment is an agreed % of revenue on each book sold. (Note the word "revenue". If your contract says that your royalty will be paid on "nett receipts", this means that if your royalty is 8%, you will receive 8% of the money received by the publisher from the bookshop, in other words after the often high discount has been deducted. So, if your publisher gave the bookshop 60% discount, your royalty will be 8% of 40% of the cover price, not 8% of the actual price.)
In practice, and put simply, it works like this: you receive your advance. When your book has sold enough copies that all your 8% portions add up to the advance, your book has "earned out its advance". From then on, you receive royalties. If your book never earns out - as often happens - you won't receive anything more, but nor will you have to repay your advance.
Further points:

a) For much more detail about the intricacies of the royalty clauses in your contract, see Stroppy Author's blog under the label Understanding your publishing contract. Take a cup of coffee with you - Stroppy is the mistress of detail in contracts and there are many posts under that heading.

b) Foreign rights have an impact on when your advance earns out - see below. 
c) I recommend that you do not value a high advance over a lower one. The huge danger of a high advance is that it does not earn out, which means that your publisher might be less keen to commission you again. Large unearned advances will hinder your career.
d) Sometimes you might write a book for a flat-fee, not an advance. This is often what happens in educational publishing or if you are contributing to a series. There is nothing wrong with this in the right circumstances. It's good for cash-flow, because you'll be paid sooner and some books have a short shelf life and might easily not get to royalty stage. However, I strongly recommend that you build something into the contract that allows you to receive further payments if the book or series does well - for example, if it reprints, or sells a certain number, or if they use the material again in a new edition. I have done very nicely like this from Egmont's I Can Learn series, which I wrote.(It did so well that I probably would have done better with royalties, but a) it wasn't possible and b) I did well enough and can call myself a best-seller because of it. (Seven out of the top ten children's non-fiction were mine at one time...)
e) Also, head off to Jane Smith's recent blog post, where she discusses advances, rights and extra things such as escalator clauses.
2. Foreign deals: I would be very interested to learn something about these as I know nothing at all.
Foreign can mean translation or territory. (For example, US/Canadian rights are still English language but are a separate territory and can have separate publishers.) Either you (and agent if you have one) have retained the foreign rights or you sold them to your main (home territory) publisher along with the first rights in your own territory. If you have them, obviously you can sell them to foreign publishers, thereby getting another advance (usually much smaller) and royalties. If your home territory publisher has them, he should try to sell them. When he does, he tells you, and he knocks the foreign advance+royalties off the advance he's paid to you. So, if you had a £5000 advance, and the UK publisher sells rights to France for £1000, you then only have £4000 of your advance left to earn, so you will get further royalties earlier than otherwise.
The selling of foreign rights is the prime reason why I'd always recommend having an agent if you can, unless you are an expert. Generally, you and your agent should try to keep at least foreign language and TV/film rights. Your publisher should pay you a bigger advance if he keeps these.
Same applies to audio, digital and TV/film rights - if your publisher owns them, he can sell them and add the fees to your balance sheet.
If your publisher has any of these rights and doesn't sell them after a reasonable period of time, you can ask for the rights to revert to you and then you can sell them yourself.
Again, see Stroppy's blog posts about contracts.She has much more detail.
3. As a self-employed book-keeper in the day job (ug) I don't have a problem with tax returns and such, but I have met a number of would-be writers who panic at any mention of the Inland Revenue - they have no idea how to set up as self-employed or at what point they would be liable for income tax and national insurance. Some people I've spoken to have even been surprised tax isn't deducted at source. (Answers apply to the UK only.)

Everything you need to know is on the HMRC website. (Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs - the Inland Revenue as it used to be called.) EDITED TO ADD: don't forget to claim all allowable expenses to set against tax and thereby reduce your tax liability. The HMRC page is here:
Basically, you tell them you're self-employed; they ask some questions to establish that you are your own boss and that's you registered.
For National Insurance and income tax stuff, see this page. Note where it says, "You'll need to keep business records and details of your income so you can fill in an annual Self Assessment tax return." This is not complicated and you don't have to do it in a certain way - just keep receipts and record them so that you can add them up. Some details and advice are here.

Income tax -  once you are self-employed, none of your income from self-employment should ever be deducted at source. When you send invoices, make this clear. (Especially to local councils and universities. Grrrr.)
Don't be frightened of any of this stuff. HMRC are very helpful and have loads of leaflets. You can phone them with your queries. They may want to take your money but they make it very easy for you to give them the right amount.
Make sure you claim everything you are entitled to. A proportion of fuel bills if you work at home, for example, and many other "use of home" expenses. The information is all there on the HMRC site.
The Society of Authors also have useful leaflets. 
4. How feasible it is to expect to earn a living from writing. Just how flexible do you need to be? How many income streams should a working writer aim to secure? And, how long does it take to build up a reasonable income (I know this will depend on how hard someone's prepared to work)?
It's very difficult to earn a living from writing but much easier if:
  • You also do things like public speaking.
  • You value your expertise enough to charge for it.
  • You are very businesslike in your attitude. See Adrian Mead's blog post here.
  • You are diverse in your writing. The more irons in the fire, the greater the chances. And one thing can lead to another.
  • You write the "right" sort of books - in other words, books that sell in decent numbers. See my post here.
You see, it's not so much about how hard you work, though of course that's important. It's more that some types of writing are likely to earn more money than others. Writing a literary novel? Don't give up the day job. Writing a fantasy series about angels? Much more likely to earn money. Writing children's non-fiction and successful novels for 9-11s? With dragons? Hooray!

So, to answer the specific bits of the question: a) feasible but harder than most people think b) very c) depends on what they are, but three would be a good start d) it depends on what they write.

One thing I'd add to that last point, as it is also relevant to the over-riding question of how the money side of things works for authors: the book that you are writing now is a long way from actually bringing you any money at all. Supposing a publisher contacts you TODAY and says he loves it, the contract is probably still some months away, so your first payment can't be till then. Delivery of the finished MS will be some more months away. Publication could be 18 months away. The first royalties won't be computed till at least six months after that, and will need to allow for returns from the bookshops.

Patience is one thing we all need in truck-loads.

Thanks, Suzanne, for your questions!