Monday, 29 November 2010


Interesting question on Twitter recently from an aspiring writer who was possibly having a wobbly moment about her writing. Sarah Callejo asked:
"Is there ever a time when you know that your writing is worth the investment?"
She then had to put up with me (and others) giving these and similar answers:
"Only you can know. Only you know what it means to you"
"The only necessary investment is time and courage."
But it turned out Sarah was meaning money. (Actually, I kind of guessed that but I was being a mixture of honest and facetious, if that's possible.) Specifically, there's a festival for writers, the York Festival of Writing, in March next year and she was wondering whether it would be worth going to. Sarah lives in Spain so this would be a significant cost for her. So, it's a fair question: how do you know what it's right and necessary to spend in the quest to become published? As she said,
"How do I know if it's worth investing money in my writing? Difficult to know."
And my answer remained: 
"Only you can know. Only you know what it means to you." And, "The only necessary investment is time and courage."
 Sarah said, "Time isn't enough. A writer needs guidance."

My response to that - bearing in mind this was Twitter, and Twitter falls down when it comes to detailed conversations - was, "Time can be enough." I pointed out that in my case, time was all I had. Twenty-one years of it. I had no money, knew of no writers' festivals or consultancies to help. So, all I could do was practise, learn, read, and just work away at it.

But this is not a fair or good enough answer. It's really not. I can't dismiss the palpable anguish of an aspiring writer who is probably at least as desperate as I was to become published and published well, for writing I believed in. Or wanted to believe in. (For, as Sarah later said, "I get insecure days when I wonder if i'm wasting my time and others when I feel it's really worth it." Yay! You're a writer! It goes with the territory. Having insecure days is essential.)

So, I think the question I have to ask myself is,
"If, when I was struggling to become published, there had been something I could have done, which would have cost money but which stood a good chance of helping me improve my writing and thereby speed me towards publication, would I have done it?"
Yes. Yes. Yes.

Because time can indeed be enough, but a) monkeys on type-writers could have all the time in the world and not get published and b) if it's a matter of getting there more quickly with good tuition or guidance, why not do it?

  1. I would not be foolish in my willingness to throw money at the problem. There are too many people trying to take money off would-be writers. So, I'd be careful about what I chose. I'd pick workshops by people with reputations, for example. Luckily, the York Festival of Writing does have workshops with people with good reputations...
  2. I would not spend more than I could afford to spend. At the end of all this there may be no publication and I would want to spend (lose) an amount of money about which I could say, "It was worth a try. It was worth that just to know." So, in a way, we are back at my original answer: "Only you know what it means to you."
  3. I would spend far more time practising what I'd been taught than I'd spent on receiving the teaching.
  4. I would value the people I met and the opportunity for new ideas almost as much as the actual information gleaned.
  5. I would do what felt right for me and not what other people said I should do.
  6. I would not measure the value of something by how much money I'd spent on it. 
  7. I would take the view that sometimes you don't know the value of something unless you try it and that some risks are worth taking. But others are not and I would not spend time regretting a wrong decision where money was concerned.
 All of which pretty much boils down to:
"Only you can know. Only you know what it means to you." And, "The only necessary investment is time and courage."
Just with a bit more detail. And, hey, it was free!

By the way, if you do want to come to the York Festival of Writing, I'm doing some workshops there! I'm also doing my own workshops, starting in March. And my aim for each one is that every participant will come away feeling they got great value for money and learnt something which should help them get published.

Are they worth your investment? Only you can know... But I hope so. And I believe so.

Friday, 26 November 2010


I have decided to give certain clever and interesting people a Soap-Box platform on my blog. The first one is for Vanessa Gebbie, ace and clever writer, mostly of short fiction. Her brand-new and fabulous collection of short stories, Storm Warning, is published by Salt Modern Fiction. (Hooray - another Christmas present idea!)

Here she is, unplugged.

IMAGINATION versus REALITY by Vanessa Gebbie

Let me tell you a story. There was this bloke who read a story what I wrote, set somewhere else – lets call it ‘Not Near Home’.
‘Marvellous story’, he said. ‘When did you go there? I’ve been there, it’s great isn’t it?!”
‘Er. No, I’ve never been there,’ I said.
‘Really? Well, erm. Well – why write a story there then? I mean why not stick to places you HAVE been to?’
‘Because the characters were dealing with things that don’t happen Near Home.’
‘Ye-es. But. Why not stick to things that DO happen Near Home?’
‘Er. Because that’s not what comes out when I switch on the writing machine – you know? You said it was a marvellous story. So it worked.’
Silence. Then, ‘But now I know you haven’t been there, it won’t be a marvellous story any more.’
What is going on? I write fiction. Fiction tends to be made thanks to the imagination. Usually.

Second story. Another person bought ‘Storm Warning’ – second collection – details below. War stories, it’s subtitled ‘Echoes of Conflict’ and has an endorsement on the front cover that uses the words ‘harrowing’ and ‘pulls no punches’ (thanks Peter James!), so it is not going to be gentle romances, is it?

Question: ‘How can you write about war? You’ve never been in one.’

I repeat, What IS going on?

I wonder if, when Marquez wrote ‘Light Like Water’ his readers complained that boats can’t float on light actually, so “just get real, right”? Or if, when Tolkein came out with ‘The Hobbit’, or ‘Lord of the Rings’, his mates took him aside and suggested he bought new glasses because people don’t have hairy feet, and mostly they don’t tend to live in holes in the ground, and there aren’t giant spiders, and Ents and Orcs, and Gollums and and and…

Nah. Of course not. Because back then, in them days, the world was different. Kids were still being fed fairy tales, feeding their imaginations, and an adult with an extraordinary, creative imagination was something accepted.

Now, what are kids doing? Watching Reality This, Reality That. Playing computer games with ‘Real!!” graphics. ‘Real’ blood n guts.  Even bloody kid’s dolls … oooh don’t get me started on dolls. Dolls started crying ‘real’ tears yonks back, didn’t they?  But see, dolls had always cried real tears in children’s heads – and the makers were not giving those little girls a gift, they were actually taking something away when those dolls appeared on the market.

I went to a workshop once, a long while back. There were a range of writers there, young, old, male and female.  Two much younger writers, fresh out of a University CW course. We all read and commented on each other’s work, watched and helped by the tutors.  There was one piece –and the comments were split. The older writers said helpful, considered stuff -  and the two young writers said another. ‘I can’t get my head round this piece’ one said. ‘It’s the setting. I like to know where Tesco’s and the lavs are, or it doesn’t feel real to me. And why on earth does this bloke do that? Blokes don’t DO that.’

That was my piece of work. I know it’s fine, because it’s had plenty of good things happen to it since. But the town lives, exists, sings, buzzes, because of the characters, because of the places they need to be, their homes, kitchens, bedrooms, pubs, pavements, libraries, chapels, back yards, caravans, because of the interactions, the history, the mountains surrounding it, the air, the scents, the losses, the little triumphs, the sadnesses. 

No Tesco’s. No lavs. So these two younger writers couldn’t sink into the fictive dream.  I bet their dolls cried ‘real tears’ and probably wet their nappies with ‘real wee’ as well.

Where is imagination? Do we need it at all? Are we allowed to imagine now, or will there always be someone who asks where Tesco’s is? Or who decides a story is no longer marvellous because they discover the writer hasn’t visited the precise setting?

Think about it.  Imagination allows us to put ourselves into someone else’s shoes, or lack of shoes. It allows us to empathise. To experience emotions as memory. To gift those emotions to our characters to bring them to life.  To slip into the skin of a soldier. A widow. A child. 

Write your story. Don’t block the imagination. And research afterwards will give you a few details to co ground the story in its correct setting.

Settings? C’mon. A few grains of sand carefully placed can make a whole desert. An old wall, a bit of pavement, a bus stop and a few characters can create a whole town.

Biography: Vanessa Gebbie is a prizewinning short story writer, a creative writing teacher, novelist, poet and editor. She teaches widely, working with writing groups, universities, school students and at literary festivals. In 2010, she was writer-in-residence at Stockholm University, Sweden.

She is author of two collections of short fiction, Words from a Glass Bubble and Storm Warning (both published by Salt Modern Fiction). Her work has also been anthologized and published in many literary magazines, in print and online.

In 2009, she was commissioned to compile, edit and contribute to a textbook on writing short fiction. The result: Short Circuit, A Guide to the Art of the Short Story, a collection of essays and writing exercises by prize-winning short fiction writers, is now in use at many creative writing courses in the UK and abroad. It is endorsed by the organizers of The Bridport Prize, the Asham Award for new women writers, The Fish International short story competition and the Frank O'Connor Award among others.

Her novel The Coward's Tale has been completed thanks to a UK Arts Council Grant for the Arts.

Thanks, Vanessa - interesting stuff. Any comments, anyone? I certainly find it mesmerisingly annoying and incomprehensible when people ask how I can write about something I've never done or experienced. Is it just the thing that separates writers from non-writers, or what? But non-writers can have wonderful imaginations, too, can't they?

Tuesday, 23 November 2010


Today is the first birthday of Pen2Publication, my writing consultancy. I have a few observations. And two things that surprised me. If you get to the end of the post, I even have some NEWS for you...

During the year I've taken on 29 clients, turned down some others, and delivered over 170,000 words in reports. Almost two novels' worth! (Crikey, think how pleased my agent would have been, if only...) I've had one client who didn't get back to me after receiving her report, but every one of the others has been effusive in acceptance of my often tough words. In fact, the first thing that surprised me was the courage and positivity with which they have all received their reports. A full P2P manuscript report is usually around 7,000 words, and most of those words focus on what's wrong. I skip with unseemly haste through the positive stuff and linger ouchingly on the negative so that the client understands fully what he or she needs to do. It's very, very tough to receive such feedback and I would like to say how much I admire them for being able to take it and, more importantly, act on it so keenly. I prepare all clients very carefully beforehand and don't take anyone who I think is going to be resistant or ignorant about the hard work involved in good writing. For my clients' dedication and courage, I salute them.

Comments have included:
"Thanks so much for your insightful, thorough and hugely helpful report. I thought I'd better check in so that you know I haven't killed myself!"
"Thanks so much again for what seems like an entire course in creative writing's worth in one report!"
"To be honest, Nicola, I cried. I cried with relief that now, at last, I know what's wrong. And you've shown me how to deal with it."
"I have re-read many websites, blogs, covering the points your critique made. I had read most of them before, but seeing your pointed comments placed alongside my own work had a marked effect. It was as if I was reading the previously studied advice for the first time."
"I am deeply impressed by the detail of your report and annotations."
"You don't hold back!"
No, I don't. There wouldn't be any point, would there? You don't pay for someone to pat you on the back, say how marvellous you are and then to shy away from saying why you aren't published and won't be if you don't find and rectify the faults. On the other hand, I don't have to try very hard to find the faults and let me tell you the second thing that surprised me about this work:
Pretty much everyone is making the same few mistakes.
So, one might think, why don't I just list those mistakes, here and now, for everyone to see? Then, surely, writers can save themselves a whole load of money by not having to go to consultancies like P2P?

Actually, I've written about them all already on this blog. But I'll say it again: you make mistakes with voice, structure, narrative thrust, over-writing, believability and pace. I've done posts on them all. But being told these things in the abstract is not enough. What I do within a P2P consultation is highlighted by one of the comments above:
"...seeing your pointed comments placed alongside my own work, had a marked effect. It was as if I was reading the previously studied advice for the first time."
Because if I tell you what to do in a blog post, doling out the theory, it simply is not as pointful and useful as if I show you, by taking your work and showing how it falls short of what you can and must do. What I do with a P2P report is annotate the MS, so that the writer's own writing reveals clear examples of the points I make in the report itself.

See, showing is better than telling.

Here comes the news...
I haven't written this post because I'm looking for more clients - far from it, actually. As you'll see if you hop over to P2P, I'm not taking new clients at the moment. (That's not the news.) At best, I only take on 2-3 a month and will take fewer from now on, as I am getting behind on my own writing. (No, that's not news either.) Next year, I'll be doing lots of Write to be Published workshops. I'll be announcing this properly soon, when I launch the brand new website, but I am inviting you over there now, as special preview guests.That's part of the news. (Oh, and do tell me about any typos - it's not fully ready yet.)

But the main news is that on the events section of the WTBP site you will see that the very first Write to be Published event actually aims to answer the very question that a P2P manuscript appraisal does:


Do you want to know what's wrong with yours? Well, if you can get to Edinburgh on March 22nd and spend the evening with me at this event in a luxury hotel, refreshments (including wine) and chocolate included, as well as a goody bag and free book, I aim to try to show you. You are being told before anyone else, so sign up now before the rush!

There's also another event you'll see, on April 4th: Get Ready to be Published. Everything except the writing. With those two events, you're pretty much set.

But I do realise that many of you can't get to Edinburgh or afford the fees for a private consultancy, so the blog goes on, unabated. Just try to stop me...

Monday, 22 November 2010


A little tip passed to me from a top agent: do not pitch to an agent at a party. The agent is there to have fun, yes? Listening to you banging on about your WIP is not fun.

Oh, and another one: be sensitive to the glazing over of the eyes of an agent being pitched to. I saw her eyes glaze over from the other side of the room. This was a woman who needed rescuing, I thought. I was right.

Actually, authors need to be sensitive to the glazing over of eyes even when not pitching to agents, at parties or not. Yes, we must be passionate and even obsessed about our book, but we also need to display good behaviour and common sense. Put it another way: it will gain you nothing if you bore the pants off someone. After all, you'll probably do it to your readers, too.

While I'm here, it's worth reminding you of something I've said before: writers, even published ones, need to have several pitch stages prepared:
  1. The really, really short core pitch, so short that no one's eyes could glaze over, so intriguing that the attention is caught, so compelling that the agent / other listener asks for more. This pitch is about ten seconds long. Or less.
  2. The next layer, in which you add a couple more details when there has been no sign of glazed eyes and every sign of wanting more.
  3. The next layer - do be careful here: are you sure the eyes aren't glazing over? Perhaps this is a very polite person who is disguising the fact that she's desperate to escape.If you get to the end of the third layer, you have been talking for ONE MINUTE. This is a very long time. (Unless this is a formal pitch, in which you have been allocated a certain amount of time.)
  4. In which you answer questions put by your listener. If no questions, shut up.
  5. The full-blown "I've been invited to this festival/library/conference and I actually have been told to talk about my book a LOT." one.
Please don't take me literally about the ten seconds / one minute thing: actually, you need to use your common sense about how long your pitch is but there are two strict rules:
  1. Shorter is better than longer. Practise your Stage 1 pitch till it's needle-sharp. And I think ten seconds is perfectly adequate.
  2. Don't do it when the agent is trying to have fun.
If you were the writer who made my agent friend grate her teeth, don't worry: she's forgotten every detail of your manuscript. And your name. She does remember what you look like, though.

I think she's probably right now having an e-fit photo drawn up and sent round all her agent friends.

Friday, 19 November 2010


Jane Smith of How Publishing Really Works has designated today Copyright Day. This was precipitated by the recent CooksSource storm, which Jane talks about here. When I saw the statement issued by CooksSource, which they seemed to think was an apology, I decided I’d take it to pieces in a simple way and show why it is not enough. 

[Edited to add: if you visit Jane's blog for Copyright Day here, you'll find that at the end she's added stacks of links to other people who blogged on the topic. It's a fabulous resource.]

That was ten days ago. Since then, there have been developments. On November 16th, the CooksSource editor, Judith Griggs, issued another statement, here. It actually makes me feel sorry for her, and there is a real apology in there. However, there's a tell-tale sentence which shows a continued lack of understanding of copyright. In her explanation of how she came to use the piece written by Monica Gaudio without permission, Ms Griggs says: "Bleary-eyed I didnt notice it was copy written and reordered some of it. I did keep the author’s name on it rather than outright “stealing” it, and it was my intention to contact the author, but I simply forgot, between proofreading, deliveries, exhaustion." I do accept that mistakes can be made, especially when one is doing too much, but the thing is that even with the author's name it in, this was still as much "stealing" as if the name wasn't there. It's still not right. And this thing about not noticing that it was "copy written" .... There is nothing to notice. We should assume that if we didn't write it, we can't copy it, unless we are quoting a small section under the terms of fair use.

Then, yesterday, November 18th, I heard that CooksSource announced that it is closing down, blaming the author who rightly complained that her copyright had been infringed and her work used without permission, so I guess I'm right that they have not understood the issue.

However, I was horrified, as Jane and other decent people were, by the spewing of hatred against Ms Griggs, the CooksSource editor. I despise such ugly and threatening reactions: they are uncivilised, disgusting and morally wrong in every way. They do nothing to aid the cause of copyright, intellectual property right or civilisation. 

So, I have decided not to rip to shreds Ms Griggs' statement. It would be too easy and probably someone else will do it anyway. Actually, I did, but I deleted the whole thing. I would rather someone read this to learn about copyright than to read about an editor's embarrassing misunderstanding of it.

The laws of copyright are not simple, but they have a simple core: to protect the creator’s right to earn, as laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (Article 27.2) “Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.”

The laws do not seek to stop people referring to the work of others to inform their own work or for comment; but they do seek to stop people unfairly profiting from the original work of a creator by using it instead of their own. So, you are allowed to quote from a piece in order to inform or explain your own work, as long as you properly credit the writer and the source of the quote. This is called Fair Use or Fair Dealing,  which allows people to quote a small amount of material without permission. Otherwise, no one would ever be allowed to quote anything from an in-copyright work. This bit of the law is hazy because no one can define the size of quote that it’s acceptable to use. If in doubt, ask permission.

It's not just editors who need to know this: it's authors, too. We may find ourselves contravening copyright if we quote too much without permission or if we fail to credit the source properly. So, let me put it as simply as I can:

  • If you want to reproduce someone’s work, you must ask permission if the work is within copyright*. Ask the author, who will tell you if you need to ask the publisher. (In the UK, copyight in written work lasts for 70 years after the author's death, NOT 70 years after the work was created. If the author died within the last 70 years, contact the Society of Authors, who will help you work out who holds the rights.)
  • If you want to quote snippets from someone’s work to illustrate a point you are making, you should be allowed to do so without asking, under the terms of Fair Use / Dealing, as long as you quote with 100% accuracy, credit the author’s name and the source of the quote, and put it properly in context so that you do not demean the work. (This ruling is in place to allow reviewers, essayists, commentators etc to be able to comment with references.) If you're worried that you may be quoting too much, ask. Song lyrics are copyrighted, by the way, and you cannot (without permission) use even a small phrase from a song lyric if it's obviously a reference to it. For example, you could not use phrases from Beatles songs as your chapter headings. But, as you'll see here, song titles are not covered.
  • If you want to copy something you find on the internet, the same rules apply, but you might also find something called a Creative Commons Licence. (See the bottom right hand corner of this blog.) This will tell you what the author has allowed you to use and in what circumstances.
I recommend that anyone wishing to know enough about copyright should read about the Berne Convention, to which virtually every country in the world (including the US) is a signatory. Then look for the slight differences that your own country operates – for example concerning the number of years after the writer’s death that copyright applies. There are plenty of places where you can find more detail about copyright, but get your information from a trusted source, such as the website of a firm of lawyers.

In short, if you want to use someone's work, you must ask. They may very well just say Yes and not ask for money, depending on the circumstances, but you still are required to ask. Remember that old school-yard adage: borrowing without asking is theft.

Finally, I would like to draw your attention to the slogan that I used when I was Chair of the Society of Authors in Scotland: Authors in Control.

Because I think they should be.

Monday, 15 November 2010


You worry too much about covering letters and synopses, you know. If most unpublished writers took a quarter of the effort they spend researching the perfect templates for covering letters and synopses and devoted it instead to their actual book, they might be published by now.

Let me tell you some simple truths about covering letters and synopses:
There is no perfect template.
If either or both are complete and utter shite, I agree: you won't be published. Because, if either or both are utter shite, it's because you can't write.
But if you're a good enough writer to have written a good book, your covering letter and synopsis won't be complete and utter shite. They just won't be.
So, you might not write the best covering letter or synopsis in the whole wide world and yes, it might even have the odd fugly bit in it, but, if you use your common sense and all the advice you've already read, you will be able to write a half decent one. If your writing is good enough, it will shine above any fugly bits.
If you write a half decent but imperfect covering letter and synopsis, and a GREAT book, it's most likely to be published.
If you write a splendiferously gorgeous covering letter and synopsis and a shite book, it won't be published.
Because, it's all about the writing**.

So, go and make sure your book is great, yes?

** Oh, and having sexy legs, of course. Duh.

Thursday, 11 November 2010


This year, as last year, I'm encouraging people to buy books as Christmas presents. But, where to start? I thought I'd ask a whole load of people for their recommendations and bring them to you. I divided my invitees into categories: published authors; industry commentators, bloggers and commenters on this blog. Today, it's the first category.

Oh, and don't forget that if you want to buy signed copies of my books, you can do that, in November only. Details are here.

Each author was asked for two nominations and also to say which book of their own they'd like me to mention. I said I didn't mind if the book hadn't been published in 2010 as I had no intention of checking, but most of them have been. I also told them that they couldn't nominate any of mine. (Stupid of me, eh?)

Here they are. Apologies for the fact that I haven't put links to the books but I am not your slave.

CAROLINE SMAILES (Like Bees to Honey)
One Day by David Nicholls - Filled me with nostalgia and is the novel that I most wish that I'd written. 
Seeing Stars by Simon Armitage - Made me feel peculiar, in a good way, as the language is twisty and unexpected and stunning.

JAMIE JAUNCEY (The Reckoning)
Monsters of Men, book 3 of the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness - Utterly gripping, furiously paced yet thought provoking story of Todd's love for Viola, against background of interplanetary colonisation with underlying themes of totalitarianism, feminism, gaia environmentalism - and one of the best plot devices since Philip Pullman's daemons.

The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness sextet by Michelle Paver (book six published last year) - In the deep forests and snowfields of stone age Northern Europe, hunter-gatherer Torak and his companion Wolf do battle with the Soul Eaters. Meticulously researched, utterly convincing and breathtakingly exciting.

Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout. (Pocket books. Coming June 2011) A wonderfully assured and involving first novel by an American writer who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for her third novel, OLIVE KITTERIDGE.  I've written about it at length here.

Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott. (Windmill Books) She is a Canadian writer and this is a superb Anne Tyler-esque novel which deserves to be better-known. It's brilliant.

LUCY COATS  (Hootcat Hill)
Firebrand by Gillian Philip – A smouldering faerie hero, an edge-of-the-seat plot and superb writing skill which takes you right into the heather hills above the witchfires make this my Number One YA fantasy this year (or pretty much any year).

Pegasus by Robin McKinley – A mortal princess and a pegasus prince find they can talk to each other against all rule and tradition—but dark magical forces threaten them. Utterly beautiful writing, gripping plotting—my Number One adult fantasy for 2010 (only published in the US at the moment, but Amazon has it in the UK).    

TANIA HERSHMAN  (The White Road and Other Stories)
A Life on Paper: Stories by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, translated by Edward Gauvin. The first English translation of the writings of this very well-known French writer deserve great exposure - his stories written over the past 30 years are fabulous in both senses of the word, surreal and thought-provoking, entertaining and disturbing.

Miss Thing by Nora Chassler, a unique book-length work that defies easy labelling, perhaps a novel, perhaps not, written in compelling, astonishing prose, twisting and winding several characters' stories together. It took my breath away.

TOM VOWLER  (The Method and Other Stories)
The Source of the Sound by Patrick Holland - A beautiful, at times haunting, collection of short stories.

Blueeyedboy by Joanne Harris - A dark and mesmerising tale.

ANDREW CROFTS   (The Change Agent, How to Create a Wonderful World)
The Ghosts of Eden by Andrew J.H. Sharp - A wonderful, evocative story about different people growing up in Uganda by an author who obviously knows and loves the country well.

Merchants of Culture by John B. Thompson (Polity Press) - A brilliant explanation of the book publishing industry and how it works.

KATIE FFORDE  (A Perfect Proposal)
The Tenth Gift by Jane Johnson - Beautifully written and evocative, following the lives of two women, separated by centuries but connected by embroidery and the desert, this is stunning!

Hungarian Dances by Jessica Duchan - Beautifully written, intriguing, romantic and yet realistic, there is also music!

CELIA REES (The Fool's Girl)
LOB by Linda Newbery and A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E. by Penny Dolan - A warm hearted and beautifully written, genuinely moving but never patronising, these two books carry on the proud tradition of British writing for children and go a long way to re-establishing excellence in fiction for the under twelves.

EMMA DARWIN (A Secret Alchemy)
Ghost Light – Joseph O’Connor. Powerfully, comical and exquisitely told story of Maire O’Neill, star of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and Hitchcock’s Hollywood, and her love affair with Ireland’s great playwright, John Synge.

Getting Published – Harry Bingham. Everything you always wanted to know, and some things you don’t want to know but must; and it’s even funny.

AMANDA CRAIG – (Times reviewer and author of Hearts and Minds)
My favourite picture book for the very young has just won the Caldecott Medal, and is Jerry Pinkney's The Lion and the Mouse. He re-tells Aesop's fable about the biggest creature and the smallest having mercy on each other in a wordless glory of glowing pictures inspired by the Seringeti.

Beswitched by Kate Saunders - for readers of 7-11; enchantingly funny and touching tale about a girl who is sent to boarding-school and who magically switches places with her own grandmother, ending up in the 1930s. Here, everything from her knowledge of geography and grammar to her deportment is criticised by fierce teachers of the Angela Brazil breed - but if only she'd paid more attention to history lessons in her own time....

Firebrand by Gillian Philip - for 11+; a stunningly clever, thrilling and enchanting new fantasy. Set in seventeenth century Scotland at the time of the witch-trials, it involves two brothers exiled from their land - which mortals can't see, and which we gradually realise is that of the Sithe or fairies. Their disgust at and pity for our cruelty, filth, ignorance and superstition brings them into one sort of danger, but back home their evil Queen is playing an equally nasty game of politics that can only result in more bloodshed and exile.

ALINE TEMPLETON (6th book of the DI Marjory Fleming series, Cradle to Grave, out in hardback at the end of Nov 2010 and in paperback in Mar 2011)
Where the Shadows Lie by Michael Ridpath - The first in the Fire and Ice trilogy, set in Iceland with a literary background of the Norse sagas and a link to Tolkein and a half-American, half-Icelandic Sergeant Detective. An original and intriguing book, and a new line for Ridpath after his hugely succesful financial thrillers.

The Adventures of Marjorie Allingham by Julia Jones (Revised edition)
As one of the Crime Queens of the Golden Age, Allingham has always been a great favourite of mine and this is a wonderful insight into the life of a seriously professional writer, from a writing family, with some fascinating things to say about the process. Complex, funny, dedicated and courageous, she's a perfect subject for biography and this is very readable too.

THE CAT KIN by Nick Green - A marvellous book that's been (unbelievably) out of print but is republished this year by Strident. It's a fantastic adventure about children in a gritty modern-day London who learn to use the ancient mystical powers of cats. Unusual and really gripping.
CASTLE OF SHADOWS by Ellen Renner - Another rattling adventure, featuring a sinister housekeeper and a villain who is all too easy to fall for. The gutsy heroine's moral choices are never clear-cut, and I loved the way the author constantly undermined my assumptions and predictions.
Next lot of recommendations next week. I'm also going to be linking to another writer's blog soon, because she's found several YA authors (including me) who are selling signed copies of their books.

Monday, 8 November 2010


(Edited to add: I have recently - April 2018 - removed some links, as this was written in 2010 and I have no time to go and check them all for you. I'm sure there are loads of newer resources but this blog is now preserved in aspic so I have no obligation to go hunting for you any more!)

I've been making my list of resources for you. Many of these are in my book, Write to be Published. This list is by no means exhaustive, though it was exhausting to put together. Nor do I believe you should read all of these, or even a tenth – there’s a danger in reading too many how-to books and blogs instead of simply getting on with the writing. Don’t overload yourself and don’t feel you have to read a certain amount before you start writing. The time you’ll learn most is when you’re actually writing.

Take what works for you. Be magpie-like, selfish, experimental, self-challenging, but do not tie yourself in knots wondering why something doesn’t make sense. If it doesn’t make sense to you, it’s not for you.

There are both books and on-line materials. I haven’t read all the books, but if I haven’t read them I’ve heard about them from people I trust. I have looked at all the blogs and websites and chosen them for what I found there, but on-line resources do change so I make no promises! It will also depend on what you’re looking for.

I make no apologies for those I’ve left out. It simply would have been impossible to include all the good stuff out there. Go find.
* indicates that the resource is US based, but I would not include it here if I didn’t think it was just as useful to all writers.

YR indicates that the resource focuses on the markets for young readers.

From Pitch to Publication by Carole Blake 
The New Writer - – subscription magazine
The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook
The W&A Yearbook Guide to Getting Published by Harry Bingham
The Writer’s Essential Tackle Box by Lynn Price (US but with UK edition pubbed by Snowbooks) *
Writers’ Forum - - subscription magazine
Writers’ Guide to Copyright and Law by Helen Shay
The Writer’s Handbook
Writers’ Market – UK & Ireland

(Many of these are by American writers. The writing craft doesn't change as you cross an ocean so everything applies equally. It's the publishing process and markets that may differ.)
The Aesthetic Validity of Marriage by Kierkegaard - highbrow!
The Art and Craft of Writing and Getting Published by Michael Seidman *
The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
The Art of Fiction by David Lodge – more basic than Gardner's one 
Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande – though published in 1934, this is still relevant because it’s about writing habit and method *
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lammot *
The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner – wide-ranging and thought-provoking *
Booklife by Jeff Vandermeer - guides us through emotional and practical aspects of writing*
How Not To Write a Novel – Howard Mittelmark – basic *
No Plot? No Problem by Chris Baty – all about NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month but full of useful tips about writing processes *
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King – much more than a memoir *
Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell – techniques and exercises in plotting *
Poetics by Aristotle - amazing what that guy knew about structure and meaning
Solutions for Writers: Practical Craft Techniques for Fiction & Non-Fiction by Sol Stein *
Your Writing Coach by Jurgen Woolf – very detailed *
Wannabe a Writer by Jane Wenham Jones – as the title suggests, light-hearted but with serious usefulness
Write Away by Elizabeth George *
Writing a Novel by Nigel Watts – starts at the beginning

First, resources from industry professionals. Some of these are also writers, but they are primarily agents, editors or other professionals.

Creative Penn - – Joanna Penn, Australian writer with good advice for writers
Duotrope - - source of resources on all genres, incl poetry
The Forest for the Trees -  - writer and editor *
How Publishing Really Works - – Jane Smith, editor with wide knowledge of industry) [No longer in operation but still worth its weight in gold]
Kidlit - – Mary Kole, children’s authors’ agent, with sensible advice of interest to all * YR
Nathan Bransford - – agent and author with much advice *
Pubrants - – another agent has a rant, but gently
Reedsy - Useful overview of avoiding scams:
Query Shark - – agent analyses and dissects queries *
Rachelle Gardner - – another agent with generous advice *
The State of Independents - - a blog by independent booksellers
Victoria Mixon - - editor and writer with no-nonsense advice *
Vulpes Libris - – a collaboration of literary readers writing about books
Writer Beware  - – essential for avoiding scams *

Whatever your genre, as part of your first step to find information, see if the writers you admire have blogs or websites. Many are generous with advice.

Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction by Patricia Highsmith 
Writing Crime Fiction by HRF Keating 
Writing Crime Fiction: Making Crime Pay by Janet Laurence 
Writing Mysteries, ed. Sue Grafton.

Crimespot - – a collection of crime fiction blogs
CrimeSpace - 
Crimefest - 
Mystery Writing is Murder - 
Noir - Allan Guthrie, crime writer and agent, has a useful links 
SinC Guppies, Sisters in Crime - 
Theakston’s Crime Festival in Harrogate -

Romantic Novelists’ Association - -  very welcoming; has a New Writers’ Scheme.

Loves Me, Loves Me Not – ed. Katie Fforde

A brief internet search will bring up a wealth of sites, groups and forums – take your pick! An especially recommended site is


Georgian London - - writer Lucy Inglis
The Historical Novel Society - – has many links and ideas from those who know. Also see its magazine, the Historical Novels Review, which “aims to review every new work of adult historical fiction released in the USA or the UK” as well as a selection of titles for children and teenagers. It also publishes Solander, –  with interviews, articles, short fiction and comment
The Virtual Victorian - - writer Essie Fox
Emma Darwin and Sally Zigmond’s blogs – see above

Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, SCBWI - and the UK one
The Scattered Authors Society - - wonderful support network and includes many friendly writers at all stages of their career.

Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, published by A&C Black
Writing for Children by Linda Strachan
Write to be Published by Nicola Morgan


How To Write Science Fiction And Fantasy by Orson Scott Card

Forums and blogs for and by fantasy and sci-fi writers abound on the internet. The writers are often supremely teckie and there’s a world of writing out there on a quick search.
Note especially:
Jeffrey A. Carver - - includes comprehensive free online course for fantasy and sci-fi writers
Katherine Langrish’s Seven Miles of Steel Thistles -  - for children’s fantasy writing
On-line writing workshop - – for fantasy, sci-fi and horror

Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story ed. Vanessa Gebbie
How to Write and Sell Short Stories by Della Galton
Creating Short Fiction by Damon Knight - literary market

ON-LINE (see also the writers who blog section, and Duotrope, The New Writer and Writers’ Forum, already mentioned):
Biscuit Publishing -
The Short Review -
The Short Story, including the BBC National Short Story Award -
Tindal Street - – this publisher has story writing tips
Womagwriter - – invaluable, by a successful women’s magazine writer

Get Known Before the Book Deal by Christina Katz and

Sunday, 7 November 2010


Jo Franklin quite rightly pointed out that I hadn't announced the winner of a competition to win a copy of Harry Bingham's Writers' and Artists' Yearbook Guide to Getting Published. I hadn't forgotten but it was some way down my list. However, as responsive as ever, here I am.

The two questions were:
A. Which of these countries publishes more books per head of the population in any given year?

  1. The USA
  2. Germany
  3. The UK
B. Why, in not more than 30 words, is the section on "Protecting your Copyright" so short in  The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook Guide to Getting Published?

The correct answer to A is The UK. According to Harry's book, in the UK there is one book published for every 301 people. In Germany it's 854 and in the US it's 1,857. In China, it's one book for every 9,816.

The reason why the section on protecting copyright is so short is because the issue, in the words of the book, "is a phantom one". As soon as you've written something the copyright is yours and you do not have to do anything to claim it or register it. Basically, you have to wait till someone infringes it and then do something about it.

So, several of you got it right anfd fulfilled the criteria of wit and pithiness etc but I most liked JaneF's cheeky one:
B. The subject on protecting your copyright - at least if it falls under submissions - is brief because he says something like "forgeddaboudit!"
(Ahem - OK so this is copied from Book Maven, but - it's not copyrighted is it?) 

And a special commendation to Susan K Mann for her neat "because once your work is written by you it is copywrited". And I'm saying nothing about the spelling...

And one to AGL for the entry that probably took the most time: "'Ere what you've writen has been sighted, the text's already copyrighted, unless you write of an idea - there's no protection then, I fear."

And an honourable mention to SP who was also perfectly correct. As well, of course, as those experts like Mary, who weren't entering!

So, well done JaneF! Could you email me your address? Email

Friday, 5 November 2010


There are a lot of misconceptions about agents, particularly amongst aspiring writers who are trying to get one.

One of the misconceptions is that once you have an agent, you will never have an unsold project again, that the agent will wave a magic wand and sell everything you write, or even everything that he or she has approved and believes in.


There are three sorts of agent:
  1. The Hot-Shot Uber-Agent - often referred to as a shark by publishers and a god by authors - who only takes on sure-fire commercial winners, and therefore sells pretty much everything, all around the world and with champagne at every international book fair. This agent works damned hard to get as much money as possible for his authors, which is great for those authors, but those authors will be carefully selected for selling power: the agent is enormously tactical about who he accepts as clients. Nothing wrong with that, but it's not going to work for most authors.
  2. The Jolly Decent Very Professional agent who obviously hopes for some commercial winners but also believes in a whole range of books and is prepared to take YOUR book simply because he loves it and will fight for its right to be published. This agent works damned hard to nurture your career, whether you're a literary fiction writer or a children's writer or a historian, and even if he knows you probably won't be a No 1 best-seller because you write a different kind of book. But some projects won't sell, because this agent is taking more risks.
  3. The Crappy Agent who couldn't sell a pair of boots to me or else who wouldn't know a termination clause if it came up and bit him. But he'll say yes to all sorts of writers because then he can say he's got some clients. He is either not really serious about this job, or is useless. If he sells anything it will be to a terrible publisher who will take anything. Sometimes these agents also call themselves publishers. Which is a rather large conflict of interest. (To avoid confusion, let me stress that I'm not referring to Andrew Wylie, who falls into the shark-god category, and his plan to publish his clients' e-books is a whole different kettle of sharks. No, I'm talking about three recent examples that have crossed my field of vision, in which the parties concerned have shown a huge misunderstanding of how agents work for authors, which should involve the agent looking for the best publisher, not themselves.)
What category of agent you get is most likely to depend on what sort of book you've written.Think about it.

Trying to get an agent is often a deeply and horribly frustrating process. Remember, I have been there. I was there for a very long time. During that time, I ranted and railed against what I perceived as the blindness, the slowness, the vagueness, the contradictions. And I now believe that understanding the thought-processes of good agents (in categories 1 and 2 above), and the markets within which they work, will really help your equilibrium during the process when you go through it.

And there is no better way to understand how good agents think than to go and read Rachelle Gardner's post here, in which she sends you over to another series of posts from another good agent. Go read, and think, and understand. And then go get yourself the right agent for you.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010


Last year, I blogged about NationalNovelWritingMonth, NaNoWriMo. My views haven't changed, so, before I say what I want to say today, please go and read it. I'll wait for you. (And if you don't know what the whole thing is, here's the main website.)

Dum de dum de dum, tra la la. *whistles and writes 167 words while waiting*.

So, you get the message: doing a NaNoWriMo can be inspiring, exciting and hugely useful. It can get a first draft down more quickly than you're likely to achieve on your own; it forces you to switch off your internal editor and is often a very good way to remove a writing block, because it doesn't matter what you write as long as the words are there. (Within reason.) It can also be fun to be part of something that others are doing and the encouragement and friendship that participants offer each other is wonderful.

And, in a minute, I'm going to give encouragement to some writers I know who are doing it. And a treat for everyone...

But. First. Hang on.

Here are some other things about NaNoWriMo:
  • It's entirely optional.
  • It is not right for everyone.
  • You should only do it if it suits your life, your writing, what else might be going on for you, your mood at the time.
  • It is not the only way to write a first draft and for many people it is not even the best way.
  • It doesn't make you a better person. Or, quite possibly, a better writer.
So, do not feel you "should" do this or that you are somehow inadequate if you don't. And, if you've started and find that it's not working, or that life has got in the way, or if for any other reason your heart and/or head tell you to stop, STOP. For goodness' sake, there are people dying around the world and whether anyone begins or completes this mad and exhausting but often enormously fun, exciting and fulfilling exercise is neither here nor there. Calm down - it's not even a commercial. (OK, so some people raise money for charity doing it, but obviously there are many other ways to raise money for charity, so don't cite that as a reason for feeling you should give yourself RSI and caffeine addiction.)

Why am I saying this? Because there's been a suggestion that some people feel pressurised into doing NaNoWriMo or guilty for not doing it. I can't imagine why anyone would feel pressurised, because it's not the sense that I get from the participants. Yes, they get a bit carried away sometimes, and yes, the internet in November is full of them sending messages to each other, but so what? Why shouldn't they? They're part of something difficult, something they want to do, something they're proud of. Why shouldn't they talk about it?

No, I suspect that if any writers feel pressurised it's not because of anything the NaNoWriMoers have said or done, but by something internal. A misplaced feeling of inadequacy or a lack of understanding about the point of NaNoWriMo. There is no good reason why you should feel you "ought" to spend a month of your life writing something you don't want to write in a way you don't want to write it. That's pointless. There's enough pressure on us as writers without feeling that we have to do something which may not be right for us. NaNoWriMo is not a rite of passage. It was cleverly and pointfully created by people who wanted to do it, for good reasons and with good results for them and many others.It was never intended as a tyranny except as a voluntary and self-imposed one

I feel it's rather like marathon running. It rightly gives some people satisfaction but doesn't suit everyone. I don't believe runners run marathons because they think they ought to. They want to; it suits their personalities (and their bodies); it's difficult and lots of people - me, for example - don't want to and couldn't do it, which gives a sense of achievement to those who can, and who make the effort.

In conclusion: do a NaNoWriMo if you actually want to. Personal satisfaction, desire to experiment, enjoyment of camaraderie, an idea that is ready to be wrenched from you and spewed out in a month of mayhem - whatever, you have to want to. And if you don't want to, don't. But don't waste time feeling that anyone else thinks you should. No one cares whether you do it or not. If you do, they'll welcome you; if you don't, just go away and write in your own way. Besides, what successful writers do you know who do it? Nowhere in any publisher's submission criteria does it say, "Do a NaNoWriMo".

And now, let's hear from a few mad Nanoers! They do, in my view, deserve our encouragement. It's not an easy thing they're doing, and if they're in it for the right reasons, they'll get a lot out of it. You'll see from their comments the variety of feelings and reasons and stories.

Kirsty Stanley @kirstyes on Twitter
I've signed up for NaNo since 2004 and have never completed. I've planned more this year and for extra inspiration I'm writing for Cancer Research UK. If this is a charity close to your heart please check out my justgiving page.

Xandra James
I'll be doing Nano for the first time this year - not quite sure what I've let myself in for yet but I'll be regularly updating my blog with my triumph and pain at

Sheila Perry @ceciliapeartree
I am doing it for the 5th time in a row, have succeeded all the previous times but it is still an uphill struggle at the start, and a daunting thought with (now) 49,393 words to go! My working title is A Reformed Character and it's a mystery with the underlying theme of 'can people really change?' I live in Edinburgh and there is a lovely NaNo group here with lots of real world meetings and write-ins.

Sally Quilford @Quillers
Sally's NaNoWriMo novel is The Thirteenth Passenger, and started as a joke, when she said she intended to write a romance about a Martian Trillionaire. Sally is also serialising her efforts on this blog and asking people to give her plot ninjas. You can find out about them on this page and see a selection of those already given on the sidebar of the blog. Her intention is to try and cram every plot ninja into her story by 30th November.

Rebecca Brown @rebeccaebrown
I'm about to tackle NaNoWriMo for the first time, with a teething six month old and a three year old and I need all the encouragement I can get!

Lev Parikian  @LevParikian
You may remember that when we met you mentioned NaNoWriMo. I thought little of it at the time, but when I got home I developed acute NaNoWriMo fever. It took me a couple of sessions to put down an outline, and I realised that I couldn't wait for November. So I started. 30k words later other things took over and I put it to one side. As this is what NaNoWriMo is designed to avoid, I decided to crack on and finish what Emma Darwin calls the 'shitty first draft' during November. It will be shitty. It will almost certainly be unpublishable, even when polished. But it will be finished. And it will be mine. And at least a little bit of it will be your fault. [NM cackles madly.]

Christine Mosler @christinemosler 
I am doing Nano and need all the encouragement I can get!  I am chrismos at Nanowrimo and I blog at

Catherine Hughes @CatONineTales
Here's my NaNo page:  As you can see,
the novel has a title already, which is a very positive feeling for me (I struggle with titles).

Joanna Cannon @Sethsmummy
This is my first nano and it feels like a terrifying interview for a job I've wanted my whole life ....

Kath Eastman @katheastman
I'm taking part in NaNoWriMo for the first time, largely thanks to encouragement from Twitter pals. I'm looking forward to being part of the NaNo community. Most of all, I'm looking forward to having fun with my writing and seeing where turning off my internal editor gets me. Hopefully not in a whole heap of trouble! I'm writing a psychological mystery/thriller about a stalker who infiltrates and manipulates a celebrity fan forum.

Louise Kelly @mllouisekelly
I'm doing it. The characters and setting I've got in my head might end up being a YA novel, but won't hold them to it if they think otherwise. The whole nano-concept has already helped as it made me get two other projects finished for the end of last month so my decks were cleared for this - I'm a real deadline junkie.  But I'm procrastinating now . . . better go!

Denyse Kirkby @djkirkby
Participating in NaNo forces me to put writing at the top of my priority list every day in November.  I am not foolish enough to believe that I will produce writing of publishable quality during that time but I do believe that no writing is ever wasted.  The words I write during NaNo may someday end up as part of  another novel or short story I am working on.  I like having words written that I can dip into like the literary equivalent of a savings account.

Lisa Ward
This is the first year that I have done NaNo. I used to be a staff nurse in A&E, then I qualified as a solicitor and I am now attempting to write! I am planning to write a YA novel about first love across two different centuries, with a few smugglers and pirates thrown in. It sounds a bit strange, but the area where I am from was rife with smugglers and wreckers a few hundred years ago, and it is an area of local history I am rather fascinated by. The story will be loosely based on it. Oh and I have managed 1889 words today, so off to a good start!

Louise Santa Ana @louloulou
I'm doing NaNoWriMo for the first time. I have an unfinished novel sitting in my Scrivener projects so am procrastinating, obviously. I'm writing a chick lit novel with a geeky heroine, set in London today. Heroine meets Mr Oh-So-Very-Wrong. He breaks her heart. She refuses to recognise Mr RIght for what he is. Tries online dating, speed dating, flirting with her brother's gay housemate etc. Tears, trauma, everyday challenges, obnoxious co-worker, steadfast friends and so on. All working its way to a happy ending. Aah. 

Joanna Robinson @joellaviscount 
This is my first ever NaNoWriMo and I'm both nervous and excited. Good Luck and happy writing to all those taking part. We can do it!

And a good news story from Julia Crouch

My second Nanovel, written in 2008, is Cuckoo, which is being published in March 2011, as part of a three-book deal with Headline. (It did take the subsequent year to bash it into second draft shape, though) Today, the start of the new Nanowrimo, I'm off to meet my editor and publicist at Headline, which seems fitting. I thought it might be nice for people to know that it is possible! [Indeed! Hooray!] This year, I am sticking with Nanowrimo, but using the impetus and camaraderie to really finish off the first draft of novel #2. But I'll be missing the arc from start to finish of a story that the novel in a month gives you.

Ans now, a treat for all of you, whether you're a Nano Nutter or not: 

Monday, 1 November 2010


The winner of Saturday's competition to win a signed copy of Tom Vowler's The Method is:

Marisa Birns!

Tom has not revealed his method, though he did say it was random. Well done, Marisa. You're in for a treat. Please email and give him your address.

Everyone else: thanks for entering and for your nice comments. I hope many of you will get to read the book soon. Do try Book Depository.

And thank to Tom for doing this. He deserves lots of success with The Method. And, by the way, official publication day is today, so, congratulations to Tom!