Wednesday, 27 July 2011

IF IN DOUBT, LEAVE IT OUT

If a word or phrase doesn't add something important to your book, cut it. If it's there because you think it's pretty, rather than helping the story and the reader, cut it.

If in doubt, leave it out. Your book will be better.

In order to do this properly, you must read every word aloud.

Please.

Thank you.

That is all.

Monday, 25 July 2011

SELLING BOOKS IS NOT A BONUS

Those of you who have heard me do talks about Write to be Published recently will have heard me say this. It needs saying again. It is fundamental to getting published.

A few weeks ago, I put a message on Twitter, asking something like, "Aspiring writers: what is your goal, your personal definition of what would be success for you?"

Replies came back along the lines you'd expect, comments such as, "I want to move people with my words," "I want to see my books in print," "My dream is to go into a bookshop and be able to buy a copy of my own book." But one reply struck me:
"I want to hold my published book in my hands. Selling copies would be a bonus."
Noooooo! Selling copies is not a bonus - the ability for your book to sell copies is utterly central to its chance of publication. If your book won't sell enough copies, a publisher will not publish it. End of. And how could we expect it to be otherwise?

Yes, we're artists, and the idea of selling, of commerciality, can be something that makes us uncomfortable. That's fine. We don't have to lose that passion for our art. That's why we write. But, if we want to be published, we must, unavoidably, aim to write a book which enough people will pay to read.

So, yes, hold onto your dream, but don't forget that your book must sell copies. It's not a bonus.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

ROCK OF AGENTS

Today I blogged about agents, and one in particular, over on the Awfully Big Blog Adventure. Do go and see what I've said.
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So, yes, watch out for more news of that brand new and exciting venture, in which I republish Mondays are Red and Sleepwalking with the help of my agent.

Separately, I will also be publishing a brand new non-fiction list, starting with Tweet Right - the sensible person's guide to Twitter. There will even be a new name for this venture, to be revealed soon. Complete with logo, which is being designed by Andrew Brown of Brown Media. 

And I will be revealing another piece of major special news - something which I guarantee none of you know. The Crabbit Old Bat will be making her bid for world domination. Hear it here first!

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

PITCH PITCH 2

A Pitch Pitch gives you a chance to develop the pitch of you work in progress and to have readers make constructive comments. See what happened last time for a sense of how constructive and helpful the comments are. If you would like to offer your pitch to the scrutiny of your fellows, see the instructions under Over To You. Oh, and while you're there, check out the other ways you can appear on or influence this blog! I'm particularly looking for people who'd like to do a Job Spotlight or Writer Blog Spotlight  - good chance to grow your platform.

My thanks to the two brave writers whose pitches follow:

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

QUERY LETTERS DISSECTED

Food for thought from Query Shark here. And then from Lynn Price here. Both American viewpoints but little they say is different over here. For "query letter" read "covering letter" - it's just that a US query letter is scarier to write because it has to sell your book and you on its own, without the recipient seeing your sample chapters at that stage.

I particularly draw your attention to Lynn's point about the pointlessness of saying "I chose your company because..." This habit has come about because of writers' genuine and well-intentioned efforts to prove that this is an individual query and the product of great research. However, think about it:
a) as Lynn says, it really doesn't matter why you chose them
b) it's a tad cocky, because there is a flavour of "how lucky you are that I chose YOU"
c) what if this is not the first agency you've tried? Or even the fourth? What you're hiding is, "I chose your agency because although you weren't top of my list of agents, you were at least on the list of agents who might in a million years consider my sort of book."
While searching for Lynn's link, I found this post of hers, containing more query letter noes. The woman is good. When she's not being bad.

The lesson from both Janet and Lynn's posts is: put yourself in the shoes of the recipient and read between your own lines. Hear your own subtext.
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Monday, 18 July 2011

BLOG BABY: CAROLINE GREEN

Blog Babies are writers who contact me to tell me of a publishing deal after (but I make no claim that it was caused by...) reading my blog. Today I am delighted to bring you Caroline Green. Did she stuggle? Did she suffer for her art? Find out!
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Caroline is the author of Dark Ride and here is the blurb:

A mysterious boy. A haunting secret.
A shiver crawled up my spine. It felt like the loneliest place in the world. For a second I thought I caught a snatch of music in the air, but it was just the wind whistling through cracks in the fairground hoardings. My instincts screamed, ‘Run away, Bel! Run away and never return!’ But instead my fingers closed around the ticket in my pocket. Admit one.
 
Bel has never met anyone like Luka. And the day she follows him into the abandoned fairground, she is totally unprepared for the turn her life is about to take.
NM: Tell us something about your early writing history, before you successfully submitted your novel.
CG: Dark Ride is actually the third novel I’ve written. The first, an adult book in the WF genre, got some positive rejections but was really a learning exercise. It felt a bit like falling in love. I couldn’t wait to work on it and the words just poured out of me in a way that was really exhilarating. This meant, naturally, that the plot was pants! The second book was for children aged 9-12 and was written initially for my eldest son. Despite winning a prize at the Winchester Writer’s Conference, and being briefly touted by Cornerstones, it didn’t go anywhere and I know now that it had some serious flaws. I forced myself to move on and write what became Dark Ride. This time I had lots of call in from agents and lots of interest that made me feel as though I was ‘almost there’. But none of them came to anything and they all ultimately rejected me.
NM: So, you decided to stop subbing to agents and go straight to publishers. What happened then?
CG: Feeling very battered and bruised by the process by this point, I had one last ditch attempt at publication by sending it directly to a publisher, Piccadilly Press. They asked to see the whole thing, then wanted to meet to suggest some changes. I was asked to come up with a revised synopsis, replacing a storyline that wasn’t working. My editor then came with a few queries and just wanted to know in a line or two  how I would handle certain sections. I had a week of horrible limbo when I didn’t really know what was going on. Then, one afternoon, I received the best email of my life, offering me a book deal.
NM: And you now have an agent! I presume that once you had a publisher that was easy? Can you take us through how that worked? And what has your agent been able to do for you that you couldn't have done yourself?
CG: I had also written a short book for my now eight year old son that Piccadilly Press passed on. I approached a bunch of agents about this and received very fast responses when they knew I already had a deal! Catherine Pellegrino at RCW surprised me by asking if she could see Dark Ride as well. I asked my editor if it was OK and she said fine, but obviously it’s gone beyond stage of an agent having any editorial input. Catherine had initially rejected it on three chapters and remembers it coming in. She is quite honest about the fact that she wasn’t very taken with it in that instance. But when she read the whole thing, she loved it and was horrified that it had slipped through her grasp! She invited me in and we just hit it off straight away. She offered to sign me and I said yes instantly. I’ve sort of given up on the younger kids’ book for now. Has an essential structural problem and I don’t feel strongly enough about it to address at the moment. I was subsequently offered a further 2-book deal by Piccadilly and Catherine was invaluable at this stage. She negotiated the contract to the nth degree. She has also helped me to secure a contract writing a book under a pseudonym for Working Partners.
NM: You'd been reading my blog for a while before you were picked up - what do you remember learning?
CG: I vividly remember you once writing about how many rejections you’d had and how you’d got where you are the hard way. It helped to bolster my desire not to give up, however battered I felt.
NM: You said, "Dark Ride has just come out and the whole thing is a total and utter dream come true." Go on, tell us about the dream! Tell us what it feels like!
CG: Being published feels incredible. It’s better than I imagined. Standing at my launch party, surrounded by family friends, publisher and agent was one of the best evenings of my life. I’ll never forget telling my husband and family about the book deals, especially dancing around the room to very loud music [Blink 182!] with my youngest when we were alone here and the first email came in. Just last night a friend’s daughter ran up and breathlessly told me she’s loved Dark Ride, all eyes shining. You really can’t put a price on how that feels.
NM: Has anything surprised you about being published? What do wish you'd known before? Anything you could have prepared for better?
CG: I’m not sure...I think I’d been around the houses so long and been part of online writing communities where other writers have had both good and bad experiences galore, that I was actually quite well prepared for how it feels. If anything is surprising, it’s just how brilliant it DOES feel. More so than I even imagined. I guess I could add that I perhaps thought that if I made it over that mountain, subsequent books would be easier to write. And I’m finding that’s not the case at all!
Hooray for blog babies! Good luck, Caroline and thanks for letting me know of your news!

Sunday, 10 July 2011

AN AWFULLY BIG ONLINE LITFEST - NOW

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Do head over to the fabulous and hectic Awfully Big Blog Adventure litfest - there's such a lot going on! It's the first ever online litfest organised by children's authors and you'll find loads of "events" from yesterday and a load more today. My post is at noon today.

Click the pretty picture on the left.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

SHORT STORY WORKSHOP SHOUTOUT

I want to draw your attention quickly to a short story workshop that I suspect will be really good. Helen Hunt has had lots of short stories published in women's magazines and she's a very sensible, nice person with lots of integrity, so I'm confident her workshop will be great: expert and generous. She's going to be running more workshops later.

By the way,

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

PITCH PITCH 1

Introducing the Pitch Pitch feature, in which you get the chance to pitch your book to readers of this blog for their comments. If you would like the chance to do this, instructions are on the Over To You page above. 
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I have three different pitches for you today. These writers are being brave but they also do want comments to help them hone their pitches. So, please be constructive, objective, fair and decent, please. If you don't normally read or like books of the sort described, either don't comment or else make it clear that you're speaking from a position of unfamiliarity.

Monday, 4 July 2011

MARY HOFFMAN ON HISTORICAL FICTION AND DAVID

I am delighted to welcome the award-winning and highly intelligent writer, Mary Hoffman, on publication day for her new historical novel, David. But I don't have people on here only to launch their books - I make them teach us something. So, my questions to Mary are all based around the idea of historical fiction, how it works, what it needs, what the pitfalls are. It's one of my favourite things to write - and for a children's or teenage author, as Mary and I both are, it's full of extra possibilities, unconstrained as we are by the bounds of mobile phones, social services and interfering parents.

A little bit about David, first:
Aged just eighteen, Gabriele sets off from his home in Settignano to make his fortune in Florence. He plans to go straight to the home of renowned sculptor Michelangelo, who is also his ‘milk brother’, but instead finds himself in the house of a wealthy widow. Before he knows it Gabriele’s plans of living a simple life as a stonecutter have disintegrated and instead he has become an artist’s model, embroiled in Florentine politics and spying for the frateschi. Gabriele is playing a dangerous game and will be lucky to escape Florence with his life.

And a little about Mary:
Mary Hoffman is an acclaimed children’s author and critic. She is the author of the internationally bestselling picture book Amazing Grace. Her Stravaganza sequence for Bloomsbury has a huge fan base and Stravaganza: City of Secrets was nominated for the Carnegie Medal. She has also received award recognition for her stand-alone historical titles: Troubadour was nominated for the 2010 Carnegie Medal and shortlisted for the Costa Book Award and The Falconer’s Knot was shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Award and winner of the French Prix Polar Jeunesse 2009. Mary lives with her husband in Oxfordshire.

Right, you lot, settle down and listen to Mary opening the door to historical fiction.

NM: When you hear a true story that you want to turn into a novel, what are the ingredients you look for which make it work?
MH: The three "straight" historical novels I have written have all begun in a different way:
The Falconer's Knot had a "mother" and a "father". My editor at Bloomsbury asked me if I'd like to try writing "The Name of the Rose for teenagers" and my husband came back from a falconry day, talking about how to tie "a falconer's knot" and the two fused together to make the novel.
Troubadour began with a single word. I just could not get the word "troubadour" out of my mind. I was sort of haunted by it. So I knew I had to start researching it. Then I found out that the flourishing of the troubadours - and women troubadours too (called Trobairitz) - came at the same time as the most ghastly massacres and mutilations of the Albigensian Crusade in the early 13th century. Courtly Love and hideous slaughter: hence the subtitle, a story of love and war.
NM: What attracted you to David? [Apart from his, erm, physique!]
MH: Funnily enough, although I am a massive fan of Michelangelo's sculptures, David is not my favourite. But he is just so "there"! [NM: Indeed!] You can't ignore him. I suppose I felt bound to write about him. But what really attracted me was that the historical facts were there as a sort of scaffolding but that no-one knew anything about the model of the David - or even if there was one. That's an irresistible challenge for a novelist.

David is so well known that he needs no explanation but the other two are about much obscurer events and practices. I can't find anything in common across the three or with the next historical project; I can only say "I know it when I come across it"!
NM: Sometimes we have to alter or ignore historical details. Can you define what sort of things you feel you can alter and what do you feel you can't?
MH: I don't change anything! What I do is add and insert and elaborate. But, possibly because I don't have a history degree, I try to be as accurate as possible. And I always put a historical note, to show which characters and events are historical and which invented.
NM adds: I've also never had to change anything such as dates or events, but I have an example to show the sort of thing we could change. When I was writing Fleshmarket, I needed a fire to have happened in a certain part of Edinburgh's Old Town in 1824. Now, there were often fires in the Old Town, so I could just have invented one, but, as it happens, the biggest fire of that era happened in exactly the part where I needed it, in 1824. But if it hadn't, I'd have invented it.
MH: Having just said that I don't change anything, I did change the leader of the pro-Medici faction in David! The real historical one was called Doffo Spini - great name isn't it? - but I wanted him to play a specific, quite unpleasant role in the story, so I made up a different leader, called Antonello de' Altobiondi, and then clad all his followers in purple and green. But I play fair and say that in the Historical Note.
NM: Are you more research fanatic or impatient to get the story down? Can you tell us something of your research methods?
MH: I research madly, fanatically, for months and make copious notes. Then I put it all away in a box, write the story and just trust that, when I need it, that bit of detail I researched will come back to me. And if I'm lucky I'll be able to find the right note and check on it. [NM: Sounds just like me.]
And of course, while writing, I am bound to come across something that I didn't anticipate needing to know. Then I stop writing and find it out. But ultimately it's the story that matters; you could stop and check a dozen times on every page but you need to reach a point where you can trust your ability to tell a story and hope that you've done enough homework not to make any mistakes that will require a complete re-write.
I make timelines and card indexes and family trees and love all the supporting apparatus of writing a historical novel.
NM: Do you have a favourite period or setting that you like to return to?
MH: I write about the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, mainly in Italy (though Troubadour begins in the south of France). I don't think I would write about anything earlier than 1200 or later than 1620-ish. But that's still over 400 years so quite a big span. At the moment I'm researching some Plantagenet novels set in England for a change, beginning about 1389.
NM: Apart from familiarity with that period, what makes it so wonderful to write about?
MH: What makes it wonderful to write about is partly not having to live in it! Imagine having toothache, or giving birth or having to have an operation in my favourite period! [NM: I felt that while describing the mastectomy without anaesthetic in Fleshmarket...] And as a vegetarian, I would probably starve. There's a wonderful book by Ian Mortimer, called The Time-Travellers Guide to the Middle Ages, which makes it very clear I wouldn't have survived five minutes.

But what attracts me about those periods is that in medieval and Renaissance Italy art was revered and considered part of everyone's life. When a great new altarpiece was made for the cathedral in Siena, it was carried through the streets of the city and practically mobbed. That's connected with the role of religion too, which fascinates me. Everyone in Europe understanding the iconography of great religious painting and sculpture. Everyone knowing the stories behind them.

I like the idea that people believed there was more to life than getting your daily bread. It doesn't have to be religion (although it pretty much did have to be then) but they accepted there was a spiritual dimension to life; they took that for granted and we seem to have lost that.
NM: How do you approach the historical "archaic" language problem, especially when writing for young people who might have less tolerance for old word usage? Any tricks?
MH: Ah the old "forsooth" and "gadzooks" trap! I try to keep dialogue very plain but without much elision. "I cannot" in dialogue immediately gives an older feel. But I use the "right" word in narrative, even if its occasionally a hard one, like "psalter" "unshriven" "flagon," even if they are not part of modern teenage vocabulary. The context always gives it to the reader and I'm not going to say "book of psalms," "without being absolved" or "vessel for holding wine." I think
readers LIKE unusual words, as long as there are not so many of them as to obscure meaning. And it gives the right flavour to the story, a sort of richness of detail in the language, which matters to me.
NM adds: I completely agree. Another trick I use is occasionally to alter the modern order of words. for example, instead of saying, "I don't know," I might say, "I know not."
NM: Sometimes in historical fiction, it's the secondary, (often truly fictional), characters who are the most fun to create, perhaps because we have total freedom with them. Who is your favourite character in David? 
MH: What an interesting question! My favourite characters CAN be historical; I loved writing about the painter Simone Martini in The Falconer's Knot. In David, it really is Gabriele, the main character, who most engaged me because I did have almost total freedom with him but I also enjoyed writing about Leonardo's retinue of "boys" especially Salai, his favourite in every sense.
Fabulous answers, Mary! Thank you, and I wish you the hugest success with David. It's a wonderful story, very expertly and grippingly told.

Mary also told me that there'd been some discussion on Twitter about what the Italian for Crabbit Old Bat would be. They settled on "vecchiaccia bisbetica", which apparently has no bats in it at all but I do think it sounds suitably irritable and snappy, so I graciously accept the title. Even though I can't pronounce it.

By the way, Celia Rees and I are speaking together about historical writing for young people, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival - Sunday 21st August. Do come!

Also, DO head over to the brand new and already wave-making History Girls collaborative blog, where Mary, Celia and I, along with many others, can be found keeping the past alive.