Sunday, 27 February 2011


World Book Night is an initiative which aims to give away a million books in one night - next Saturday, 5th March. I love the idea of promoting reading - of course - and I'm not at all against giving things away, but I admit that I think there were better ways to give away a million books than this particular scheme. Simpler ways, ways which would benefit authors, bookshops and publishers. All of them. Whereas this initiative not only does not benefit them all, but has some knock-on costs.

However, the other day I had a friendly meeting with the organiser, Jamie Byng of Canongate Books, and bookseller Vanessa Robertson, owner of the fabulous Edinburgh Bookshop, who has been vocal in her reservations about the delivery of WBN, and I wanted to do something to contribute to the spirit of the venture in a way that I can be fully comfortable with.

Let me first explain about WBN.

The WBN venture chooses 25 books, arranges for 40,000 copies of each to be printed as a special edition by their publishers, with royalties voluntarily waived by their authors, and asks 20,000 volunteer givers to choose one title, receive 48 copies of it and give them away in an appropriate manner on the night of March 5th. My concerns are that the parlous nature of the book industry, falling revenues for booksellers, publishers and authors, and the constant erosion of the value of what we do, are not best improved by giving away one million especially printed books, which would have retailed at around £9million if sold in the normal way. Of course, there will be some benefits - crikey, imagine if there weren't! The benefits to some might even be huge; let's hope they are, even if the costs are high.

I just think there were better ways, which could have stronger results at less cost to a struggling industry.

After Vanessa had blogged about this, many people agreed with her, though some didn't, naturally. There are also many people who have muttered about WBN and not said anything publicly. I added a comment to Vanessa's blog post, amongst a load of other comments. Mine was the only one picked up by the Guardian and quoted in a subsequent newspaper article. The article said I was "happy to air objections" but I don't feel particularly happy objecting, actually. I'd rather do something positive.

So, rather than ignoring WBN, I have a contribution, and I'd like you all to join me. Of course, I'd also like you to support World Book Night in whatever ways you wish, including the intended one, but this is mine and I hope you like it.

Our World Book Night
One day between now and next Saturday (March 5th), let's each of us buy a book, preferably from an actual bookshop, or direct from a publisher. Any book. Write inside it: "Given in the spirit of World Book Night, March 5th 2011 and bought from [insert name of shop] - please enjoy and tell people about it." And give it to someone. Anyone. A friend or stranger, a library or school or doctor's surgery or anything.

Then go home, and enjoy whatever you're reading yourself.

It's very simple and everyone wins: the bookshop, the recipient, the author, the publisher, the agent, even you, the giver, because you'll enjoy the frisson of pleasure that comes from giving. There are no losers. That's why I like it. And I'll be buying my book from The Edinburgh Bookshop.

One more thing: please pledge in a comment below that you are going to do this, and spread the word. If even fifty people do this, that's fifty books that wouldn't have been bought. Call me simple, but I like that idea a lot.

Thursday, 17 February 2011


Photo by Christopher Bowen, with permissio
Recently, when I was badly, and with impeccably awful timing, losing my voice, I bumped into Alan Bissett on a train journey from Inverness to Edinburgh. Now, since Alan's latest work is called The Moira Monologues, which he has been touring in Scotland to great acclaim and with sell-out shows, I should have been able to rest my voice. Surely, Alan, chatty man that he is, would do all the talking? But oh, no, no: this is me we're talking about. I don't stop talking just because I have a sore throat, events coming up and an acclaimed comedian sitting opposite me. Even with his very lovely girlfriend there.

So, we got talking. Or he did when he could. And I discovered that the Moira Monologues is (are?) now an enhanced ebook thingummy, which I was very interested in, mainly because I didn't actually know what it was, except vaguely. Basically, it's an ebook, enhanced by extra stuff, in this case by the full audio version of the Monologues, which people can then download onto other platforms. Also, you can buy the print version of the book as Print on Demand. So, multi-purpose, multi-platform. Anyway, I thought I'd get Alan to tell you a bit more, including a bit more about Cargo, his innovative young publishers. (Who, by the way, sent me a press pack so digitally sophisticated that I couldn't open it. But they were so enthusiastic that it almost made up for it.)

In which I interview the man behind the Moira Monologues.

NM: What the hell is this project?? Spill the beans, Bissett.
AB: The Moira Monologues is a 'one-woman show' which I wrote, performed and toured throughout Scotland last year, including 3 weeks at the Edinburgh Fringe.  It's a story based on the women in my family, who are brilliant talkers, which, for some reason, I thought it would be a great idea to perform a woman!  The reviews and audience responses were through the roof, and the BBC have even bought the character for development, so I figured publishing the script plus audio version would be the next logical step.
NM: What's the thinking behind the enhanced ebook + POD platforms?
AB: First of all, I wanted to support Cargo, who are a new Glasgow publisher, run by people in their early twenties, who have tons of ambition and energy, [NM: indeedy]and I thought this project would suit them.  They have very innovative ideas for how to publish and promote work that don't just include the usual book chains/broadsheet reviews route.  The idea of publishing the Moira text PLUS an audio of me performing the show live for downloading to iPods, iPhones and laptops is a very new and exciting one.  It retools fiction for a generation who are far more au fait with technology than I could ever be.  AND for people who like a good old fashioned book, they'll also print you one on demand! [NM: btw, I note it's not available for Kindle. Haha Amazon. EDITED TO ADD: oops, wrong info. It is available on Kindle. Sorry, Amazon.]
NM: What are you doing to promote it?
AB: What I always do: touring myself round the schools, reading groups, libraries.  I probably do about 3 readings per week, sometimes more, and now I almost always get requests for Moira.  She's a popular woman!
NM: Tell us about @moira_bell on Twitter. Do you find that works in a way that your own persona wouldn't? I know a couple of people who have alter egos as Twitter characters but I remained to be convinced.
AB: Yes, I'm having fun with it.  I like being Moira anyway - because she says things that I wouldn't DARE - and given I'll have to write more of her for the BBC it allows me to explore her world a bit more.  For people who saw the show, and now feel like they know her...well now they get to have her as their Twitter pal! [NM: I follow @moira_bell - highly recommended.] 
NM: Tell us a bit of other book news - what does Alan Bissett do when he's not pretending to be a woman?
AB: My first novel, Boyracers, is being re-released in April for its 10th Anniversary, with a new afterword by me, and my new novel, Pack Men, will be out in August.  STV have just bought my most recent novel, Death of a Ladies Man, also.  So it's a very exciting year.  Moira, however, is queen, and you should check her out.  She's kinda unforgettable.
Big thanks to Alan for giving up his time. If you want to download Moira, or order the book, the link is here.

I think this is all really interesting, giving us some ideas as to what ebooks can do.  Enhanced ebooks are, I believe, a really good way forward. I lied when I said I didn't know what they are. I actually have my own dream of the future: a paper book just like a "normal" book, but enhanced by a sheet of electronic paper at the beginning, so that you can access extra e-bits and online stuff by touching something on the e-paper. So, better than an enhanced ebook - an enhanced booky book.

On that subject....
I have actually read (and paid for) an enhanced ebook - and I'm afraid I give it only 5/10. It's called Net Matters, published as an app for iPad only by Canongate Books. It seemed to me just an excuse for producing a disappointingly short book, with pictures, some of which move without reader control and which in one case completely prevented me from being able to read the text. You can't find your way around; it's nigh-on impossible to find a bit you want to read again; and it's more like a long essay divided into chunks, with pretty (but sometimes distracting) pictures and a few links to websites. So, enhanced ebooks are the way forward but this was not a good introduction, in my opinion. Canongate is a very clever and often brilliant publisher: I believe they could have done much better.

Monday, 14 February 2011


Everyone is wrong sometimes. Don't tell me about spritual leaders claiming a hotline to a higher being - we're talking ordinary people here, and publishers are as ordinary as the rest of us.

But, more interestingly and relevantly, define "wrong". You will have heard stories of famous authors/books who were rejected 99 times before going on to be massive. So, does this mean that all the publishers who rejected them were wrong? As an example known personally to me, Keren David had When I Was Joe rejected many times before it was picked up, and it's now doing phenomenally well on shortlists. As I should know, as she just beat me to runner-up place in the North East Book Award.

You will also have heard of authors who were serially rejected, then self-published, and who then were picked up by a publisher and given a contract.

So, the implication is that those publishers were wrong. And they might have been, not being infallible etc, but I'd like you to consider some other possibilities. (And nearly all of these apply to agents, too.)

As I say, define "wrong". If by "wrong" you mean that they have missed making a load of money because they too would have made a huge success of this book, then no, not necessarily. If you mean that they ought to have said yes because any non-stupid publisher would have recognised the commercial merit of the book, and since they didn't they must be stupid, again, no, not necessarily.

In order to understand, consider the reasons why a publisher may validly and sensibly reject a book that goes on to be a success. Even a good book. Even, occasionally, a really really good book.

Good reasons why a publisher might reject a potentially commercially successful / critically acclaimed / classic book and not feel like blushing afterwards:
  1. It's not the sort of book they publish and therefore they would not make a good job of it / wouldn't have the necessary marketing (eg) budget for it - different books do require different expertise. If they'd taken it on, we might never have heard of it.
  2. They have filled their list for the next year (or whatever) and can't take on anything else and commit time and money to it in a time-scale acceptable to an agent/author who might be knocked down by a bus before the next possible publication date 25 years hence. You see, publishers tend to have a very small number (depending on the size of the company) of "lead titles" each month, scheduled up to 18 months (or sometimes more) ahead. If they have their max of lead titles and your book is important enough to require it to be a lead title (or your agent wouldn't have it any other way), then they can't rightly commit to it and would be doing you a disservice in taking it. Publishers have to take on only the amount they can deal with well. Remember that a lot of their costs have to be paid long before they can expect any income, so budgets are an issue.
  3. They are scheduled to publish another book which would be in competition with it. In some cases this might not be a problem but it easily could be.
  4. The editor in question just personally doesn't love the book enough. As you will agree, everyone has different opinions about books, and you DO need an editor who loves yours. If she/he doesn't, she/he can't speak up for it at the acquisitions meeting and it simply won't get taken on, even if another editor in another company might have loved it. It really is and MUST be largely personal choice. The same hugely applies to agents.
  5. Some books that become huge commercial successes, are, in the humble opinion of yours truly, utter tripe, and have absolutely nothing about them that anyone who fulfilled the criteria of sanity and consciousness and wasn't drunk or stoned would ever detect.
Apart from that, yeah, publishers are sometimes "wrong" - in the sense that sometimes they say no when they should say yes and sometimes they say yes when they will wish they'd said no. (For example, to the Wayne Rooney autobiographies.) But let's not get it into our heads that this whole business of saying which book is going to work or not could or should ever be an exact science. It's a weird weird world out there, with beautifully unpredictable readers who can turn a dead-cert into a disappearing act or dress the Emperor in the most glittering new clothes.

For what it's worth, I find it really surprising that Keren's book was rejected as often as it was. But for each publisher who made that decision, one of the above reasons could have applied. And I am sure Keren is dancing extra-happy dances each time her book appears on a shortlist and that her publishers, Frances Lincoln, are very very happy that they got the chance to publish her.

For you, the poor author trying to deal with another rejection of what you must hope is a dead-cert, it is perhaps no consolation to be reminded that all that glitters is not sold. Sometimes, I'm afraid, it's never sold.

[This blog post was originally posted nearly two years ago. I have added the comments about Keren's book and trimmed it slightly.]

Thursday, 10 February 2011


...are many, important, interesting and often surprising. So much so that I'm organising a Write to be Published extended workshop on June 9th especially to try to cover them all and give participants a really strong handle on how to enter this tricky market with confidence.

Writing for children isn't easy but it's wonderfully rewarding. It's also much harder than it used to be many years ago. That might seem an odd thing to say, but if you look at many (most) of the children's books written a generation ago you'll find them missing many "rules" and conventions which now apply; you'll find them getting away with plot devices and happenings that won't wash nowadays; you'll find enormous competition with many more books and writers than there used to be; you'll find gate-keepers who have different agendas from each other and from the readers; and you'll find a standard and range of linguistic techniques and possibilities unlike anything that went before. (Whatever Martin Amis may think.)

Here are some of the things you need to know about before you are likely to be published as a children's writer:
  • word count for age range
  • pages and spreads for picture books - including managing illustrations (but NOT doing them...)
  • ramifications of the need for co-editions
  • age of characters for age range
  • wtf are age ranges about anyway?
  • topic / themes appropriate for age of audience
  • boundaries and barriers
  • the rules that modern real-life children are bound by - parents, social services and damned mobile phones!
  • gate-keepers
  • character development 
  • rights and wrongs - where can or should morals come into it?
  • safety-nets and the fear factor
  • educational vs trade writing
  • colloquial language use - including managing swearing
And then, once we've understood these technicalities, the fun starts: we learn to manipulate the various voices needed for the different age groups and different genres and to get those voices pitch perfect. Voice in children's and teenage writing is one of my favourite topics and there's no doubt that it's essential to get it right. I'd venture to say that there are more mistakes to be made here than in adult writing and therefore that it's even more essential to know what you're doing.

There are some writers who seem to know and do all this naturally. If that's you, you're probably published already. But if not, and if the list above leaves you feeling a little bit lost or worried, or if you'd like to understand much more, or to have reassurance that you're on the right lines, I can help you. You might be halfway through your first draft or even your fourth, or you might be about to start: whichever, I can help.

I was going to write a book about this, as some of you know. I've had to postpone that indefinitely, I'm afraid, owing to "pressure of stuff". But it doesn't matter because I'll be doing the workshop and you can all come. Well, no, of course you can't all come, so, for those of you who can't, I'll drip-feed some learning points in blog posts over the coming weeks. But the written word can only achieve so much: nothing beats the chocolate hands-on experience of attending a workshop and letting me actually show you how to do it and explain more clearly what I mean, using my work and perhaps yours (with your permission) as examples. The opportunity for you to ask questions, and for us to discuss bits of your work, will be hugely valuable. It's rather like a Pen2Publication consultation and clients there have discovered that having advice applied directly to one's own work is eye-opening, making it all make sense, properly, personally, practically.

And then, of course, there's the chocolate, the wine, the free signed copy of Write to be Published, and a glorious crabbit bag! Booking is now open - don't delay.

Monday, 7 February 2011


Recently, I passed the 1000 blog-follower mark, which I found a rather remarkable and proud-making feat. But this is your doing as well as mine, so I am hereby announcing a celebratory creative writing competition.

With prizes, naturally. First prize, two of my books plus a crabbit bag. Second prize three - oh very funny, no ONE of my books and a crabbit bag. Two runner-up prizes of a crabbit bag each.

And your task? Simply write up to 150 words in any form, any genre, inspired by this photo or some aspect of it. You may interpret it as loosely as you like, though it must be identifiable by a reasonable person (me) as being in some way triggered by or connected to the photo or part of it. Get creative, get inspired, and put your best foot forward.

  1. Your entry must be in the English language. My Moldovan just isn't up to scratch.
  2. Your entry must be your own original work and must not plagiarize.
  3. Copyright remains with each writer, of course.
  4. Judge's / judges' decisions are final. I haven't got a judge yet, but it won't be me. No bloody way.
  5. First prize only open to UK residents, because of postage costs, but non-UK residents eligible for other prizes, because I love you equally.
  6. Please email your entry in the body of the email, NOT as an attachment, to
  7. By entering, you agree that your entry, or an extract, can be posted on this blog when the winners are announced.
  8. Deadline for entries is March 1st, midday UK time.
Here's the picture. For your info, though you do not need to take this into account, it was taken in the Yurt at the Edinburgh Book Festival. And yes, they are my feet. Because this blog is my feat.

Thursday, 3 February 2011


A few people on Twitter and by email have asked me to say something about how emotional upset or a serious setback can throw a writer into stress, meltdown, inability to concentrate. Is this feeling legitimate, normal, curable? Why can it sometimes be such a problem and what are the solutions?

Interestingly, I think what we're specifically talking about here is writing fiction. It's as though fiction, coming as it does so strongly from the emotional parts of our brain, can be more affected by intrusive emotions in our personal lives. It is also likely to be the case that more emotional people - and I count myself proudly amongst them - can be knocked more painfully off track and have our concentration more deeply affected. (Positively as well as negatively.) My brain is like a swarm of bees and is easily agitated.

For most of last year, I could not write fiction. When I say "could not", doubtless I exaggerate, in the sense that if you'd held a gun to my head, chained me to my desk and removed food (and wine) until I wrote a chapter, I'd have managed something. But, in effect, I couldn't. I didn't. I failed. It was frightening and lonely. Something had happened - several things, actually - which wrecked my ability to be creative for that period. The small amounts of fiction that I did manage - probably 10,000 words of a novel I'd started the previous year - seemed to be dragged from me painfully and unsatisfyingly. (Fortunately, I didn't have a fiction deadline to miss, so I didn't fail there.) Strangely, when I read that material now, I think what I wrote last year was pretty good, but at the time I had no emotional connection to it. I thought it was rubbish and several times I decided to quit writing teenage fiction entirely. I tried writing other stuff but that wasn't working either. I messed around, hurtling through tasks, blog posts, talks, admin, housework, anything but "proper" writing. Anything but writing from the heart because my heart was elsewhere.

Non-fiction was no problem, which is why I managed to get Write to be Published written and met my deadline. If my deadline had been a novel, I'm not sure what I'd have done. (Probably, actually, done it.) I wanted to write a novel, but I couldn't get my head around it, couldn't get my heart to engage. Lots of people were telling me different things: "Write an adult novel," "Write for younger children," "You have to stick to YA."

Some people actually find they write better during these times. A friend of mine - reader of this blog, too, and she may well identify herself because I'm guessing she knows I mean her - finds that the more furious and upset she is, the more she needs and wants and manages to write, as though her amygdala drives her on. My amygdala just paralyses me.  

What sort of triggers cause this emotional state that can so dramatically affect our writing, for better or, more often, worse? I can think of a whole range. If you don't mind, I won't say which one/ones apply to me, as the whole thing is still unresolved and raw. But here are some of the things that can hit us hard and which I know some of you have suffered:
  • bereavement or serious illness of a loved one
  • or serious illness in yourself
  • real worry about someone very close to you
  • redundancy or job loss, including being dropped by a publisher
  • betrayal or deceit by someone else
  • enormous loss of self-esteem and self-worth, which can be sudden or gradual
  • failure to do something which you took for granted
  • major financial fears
  • anything which causes deep and prolonged anger, sadness, fear. Or all of them.
All of us will face at least some of those things at some point and sometimes we can move quickly through such periods. Sometimes we can put our writing aside and wait to get through whatever the awful situation is. Sometimes we don't realise that we need to pause and wait for it to pass - though sometimes we can't do that anyway.

Now, let's not make too much of a special case for writers. These things can affect everyone and most people can manage to function at least somewhat throughout traumas. But merely functioning is not the same as accessing creativity. I functioned, too. I carried on blogging, buying and preparing food for my family, socialising, smiling, getting up in the morning, doing all the things that we're supposed to do. I didn't go under. But my fiction writing was a mess. It felt horrible. Dead.

So, what are the solutions? Look, I'm no psychotherapist. (Luckily for all.) All I know is what I've learnt from a bad year and from talking to others. Some of these strategies might help you as they have me. I hope so, as I am now sailing away from the problem on a fast wind, even though the underlying emotion is nowhere near fully resolved.

Here are the small solutions or strategies that I learnt. And I'd like to point out, lest you consider yourselves uber-rationalist, sceptical, old-fashioned and stereotypically British: I'm of that ilk, too. But we're all human and if you're lucky enough never to have been rocked to your core, never to have been knocked off kilter, fine. I hope you are never tested.

Solutions and strategies - pick yours

Acknowledge what's happening - reassure yourself that this is quite normal, but that it feels like shit.

Accept that it's a phase - nothing is forever. Soon, you will feel better about it and you will process what's happened and move through appropriate stages.

Realise that there will be stages - shock, anger, sadness, loss of motivation. Each trauma and each person will be different but the way you feel today is not how you'll feel next week or next month. You may not be able to reach F until you've been through B, C and D. But you might miss out E. Or not.

Step back and take a break. For a day, a week, a whatever. Perhaps you have rushed at everything too fast and done too much and filled your days too full. I had and I'd left no time to think. Thinking is essential and sometimes we just don't give ourselves time for it. So, go easy on yourself.   

Analyse what you want from your writing. Sometimes emotional upset can make us lose our way and our focus and we wonder what we're doing and why. Think it through; talk it through; explore the possibilities in your mind. Ask yourself, "If I did this, or this, how would I feel?" Be logical.

Take control in small ways, as soon as you can, but don't beat yourself up when you slip back. Control is what you need to get back. We simply must not let circumstance and emotion destroy us. We have to win if we believe in free will. So, fight and win back control, in small ways first. Set small targets, such as a modest word count - more than you did yesterday. Then reward yourself for achieving it.

Walk. Walk to live and walk to write. Get out into the natural world and feel the raw wind on your face, the sun in your eyes. It's uplifting and will change you. Find high places, bright places, empty places. But while you're walking, think of your writing, your WIP or your next idea: don't waste the wonderful outdoors on thinking about your fury or your sadness.

Create strategies, not resolutions. My post on New Year's Day was written with this in mind and I'm proud to report that I'm still going strong: writing is now the top of my list whereas last year it was a terrifying task that found itself at the bottom of every to-do list. I still have the unresolved emotion. I'm writing over it. Maybe it can even make my writing better.

Yes, consider that emotion, being essential for fiction-writing, could make your writing better. Harness it and channel it. If it makes your writing angry, or sad, vitriolic or devastating, so damned what? My current novel is called Brutal Eyes. It's the most shocking thing I've written. I'm glad. I want it to be shocking. As I said earlier, some people write better when their emotions are heightened; heightened is good, but only if you can control them. I am. Hooray!

Write. Just bloody well write, OK? Once you've tried everything you think might work on the list above, just write. No one's going to do it for you.That's the scary bit, the bit we can't avoid.

Just don't let the buggers bite. Take care, good luck and remember: all this shall pass.