Friday, 30 September 2011

Pitch your book in 25 words

Next weekend I'm doing a gig at Wordstock, a festival of words organised by 26, an organisation that aims to "inspire a greater love of words, in business and in life." They call them gigs in order to play on the Woodstock/Wordstock thing but I promise I will not have a guitar with me, and I will not sing, not even a little bit.

But you have the opportunity to send a part of yourself to Wordstock with me, in my briefcase. Here's how.

My gig is about pitching your/our/a book in a few words. It's about hooks and blurbs and straplines and all manner of pithy succinctity. I will spend a bit of time demonstrating the necessary ingredients of a great hook and then we will have a shot at creating them - either from our own books or from books we know and love, or even hate.

One thing we will do is analyse some actual or imagined hooks and brainstorm what's wrong and right with them. This is where you come in: would you like to sling your hook this way and let us analyse it?

You would? Fantastic! So, give us your max-25-word hook/pitch in the comments below. Then, blog readers can comment on them and we will discuss some at Wordstock. I will report back with what we thought.

To get you started, here are some tips for hooks - tips, not rules, but do be careful about how and why you would break the rules.
  • Focus on the main character only
  • Include (with knobs on) the conflict/goal/problem
  • Make us care by highlighting what the MC will lose if he fails - the stakes
Over to you. Fiction, non-fiction, whatever - pitch it to us and make us desperate to read it.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011


Really interested in this video on David Maybury's blog, which I came across last week. People are criticising trade publishers a lot at the moment - and I have some criticism myself - but I was inspired by the people in this video. I love their real passion for what they do. I love their knowledge and their willingness to share with each other. They are looking ahead; they are being positive, ambitious, creative, lateral, generous, wide-thinking and free-thinking.

Too often nowadays we see people from one part of publishing industry sniping at the other - authors against publishers, publishers against self-publishers, literary against commercial, commercial against literary, paper against digital, unpublished against published, "indie" against "legacy"; we even argue about the names and their relative legitimacy. But these people just love books and words and they don't allow themselves to be restricted or blinkered by notions of what a book is or what it should be, as long as it's full of great creativity.

They are thinking outside the book.

However. Let no one forget that it's an author's mind that creates the words in the book and dreams up stories that sing. And let no one forget that we don't need technogizmery to do that. All we need is time, food and heartsong, a few people round a fire to listen, and we can then create mountains in your mind and spin the blood in your heart and ripple waves of laughter that will make you forget the ink and paper or the silicone gadgetry, however beautiful and clever.

Not a snipe at all. Just asking you not to forget what writing is, and where it comes from.

[Edited to add: yesterday I was at an event where an agent talked about an editor's job as "Publishing the gleam in the author's eye." Thus spake someone else passionate about the art of the author.]

Thursday, 22 September 2011


This is adapted from a much earlier post, but that one has been lost in the tangle of brambles and ivy, and I thought it could do with an airing. Especially since I'm in the middle of a novel revision and editing is uppermost in my mind.

I guess that the possible methods for self-editing are similar to the possible methods for weeding your garden.
  1. Go from one end to the other, picking out all the weeds carefully.
  2. Wander about, picking out weeds as you see them.
  3. Decide that weeds are just plants with more determination and that, since everything is equal in God's eyes, they should be allowed to remain. (Please don't take this view of the weeds in your book. Not if you want to be published and read.)
Then I decided that this analogy is rubbish and that, as with all analogies, it is aesthetically pleasing and yet practically pointless.

There are, in fact, only three things you need to think about when weeding your garden:
  1. You need to know the difference between a weed and a plant.
  2. And you just have to get rid of the damned weeds. Doesn't matter how - just do it.
  3. No matter how carefully you do it, you'll find more weeds at the end, because the removal of one weed often reveals another lurking beneath.
I decided that this is not complete rubbish after all and is a pretty good analogy for editing your own work, because:
  1. You need to know what possible errors you're looking for - the difference between a good sentence / plot structure and a crappy one, just as you need to know what's a weed and what's not.
  2. And you just need to get rid of the errors.
  3. And when you've got rid of one lot, another lot is revealed.
  4. So you get rid of them.
  5. And so on.
  6. Until your piece of work is weed-free.
Would you like any help with the identification of weeds? I am here for you, as ever. There are two categories of weeds in your literary garden.

CATEGORY ONE WEEDS are the choking bindweedy ones, which threaten to take over your roses and throttle the life-blood from them. (There are actually many of these in my real garden and at least one in my WIP.) These must be removed early on, by the roots, otherwise your roses cannot grow and your garden, frankly, is fit only for slugs and other vermin. It is, in the words of Rab C Nesbit, pish. Examples are:
  • Poor characterisation - either in your MCs or your supporting acts. Do your characters always behave as they should? Does the reader like / respect/ identify with / feel for the MC? (We don't need to do all those things, but we have to care.)
  • Pace problems - I wrote about that here.
  • Tension issues - where is the tension? Is it in the right place? Is it satisfied at the right time?
  • Voice slippages - see here.
  • Major POV slippages - here you are.
  • Story structure / shape / arc problems - over here.
  • Saggy middle - hmm. I went searching for posts about saggy middles but kept finding myself mentioning them but never tackling them. This is rather the case in real life, too. I will have to tackle the saggy middle. Soon.
  • Crappy ending - here.
  • Story starting in the wrong place - gosh, I'm good to you.
  • And a lot more - which is not very helpful of me but I have a book to write.
To be honest, you really shouldn't have let most of these anywhere near your garden in the first place. If you are a beginner writer, your book may be littered with these horrors, but a more experienced writer will avoid almost all of them before they appear.

CATEGORY TWO WEEDS are smaller things, which all writers will find in their first drafts and which we will apply the weeding gloves to with a commendable ruthlessness. Our editors and copy-editors and proof-readers will pick up any that we didn't spot but we want to leave as little as possible for these people. It's our book, not theirs. (Also, publishers nowadays don't like to use editors etc more than they need to. Grrr.) Category Two weeds are like those dainty things that try to pretend they're real flowers. Sometimes my husband thinks they are and he leaves them. Sometimes he takes out the pretty flowers instead. He is like a novice writer when it comes to weeding, which in his case it usually doesn't, actually. Examples are:
  • Places where tweaks should be made to clarify characterisation / motivation / credibility.
  • Clunky sentences - sentences where you have clustered a collection of clauses in an ugly order, for example, making it hard for the reader to read.
  • Minor POV or voice slippage.
  • Places where thre's too much telling when showing would have been better. Extraneous adverbs.
  • Continuity issues - eg saying that the MC leapt onto the horse's bare back and then later mentioning the stirrups. I have done this. Oh and then there was the one [which made it through all the copy-editors and all the way into the printed book] where a girl flings open the door of a room which ten minutes before I'd said was locked on the other side...
  • Typos, spelling errors, punctuation etc etc. And yes, there will be some in this post. I'll find them eventually. But probably not all of them, because this is a blog post and I can change it later. So shut up, please.
  • Anything that doesn't sound absofrigginglutely perfect when you read it aloud, imagining that your audience consists of fidgety people who are assuming you've got nothing interesting to tell them and they're desperate to leave.
When you've done all that, there's only one more thing to do. Do it again. And possibly again. 

One of the problems is that the weed you removed may have hidden roots. You will have noticed the same in books: if you change one thing, you'll find you have created knock-on effects which now have to be dealt with. So, you do have to remove weeds and plot problems by the root and make sure you've not forgotten any tendrils. I suggest keeping a notebook as you revise and jotting down things you've changed, so that you can check that you've found all the consequences. However, this is a bit methody for me and I prefer the madness approach and the constant re-reading.

And when you're quite sure that no weed is peeping up between the soil of your well-raked flower-border, then you can let an agent or publisher see it. By which time, a previously invisible seed will have begun to sprout, and what you thought was perfection won't be. That's because perfection is unattainable in writing as in gardening, and you have to get over it.

Have I answered your questions? Probably not. See, I don't really have a method. I just do it. And do it again. I honestly think once you can identify the weeds, pulling them out is not that difficult. You can choose whatever weeding method works for you: just get rid of the little buggers.

Oh, and by the way, spell-check and grammar-check are the equivalent of weed-killer: they don't let anything grow. They kill indiscriminately and remove control from the gardener. They may have their place for some people but they are not enough for anyone. Real writers use their hands.

Here's one I made earlier, with not a weed in sight. (Obviously a lot earlier, since this is September and those are not Septemberish seedlings.)

Monday, 19 September 2011


During the conference event that I mentioned here, I said I would make my powerpoint presentation available to anyone who wanted to see it. So, I include the link below.

Please note - it can't make full sense without me there to talk about it. This was just the bare bones and there was a great deal of explanation about each slide. Also, the formatting has disappeared in the transition to Google docs - and the pretty pics on my intro slide have gone!

People seemed interested - though also a bit daunted by my apparent energy, I heard afterwards. Don't be daunted - I'm a lazy cow, really. When I'm not being lazy, however, I do a lot of public-speaking and am now being approached by publishers to come and talk to their authors about platforms and author marketing. I can also do focused workshops on Twitter and blogging. If you would like your publisher to invite me to speak to you and your fellow authors, ask them to get in touch! I also love speaking at writers' conferences and have been booked to speak at the York Festival of Writing again next year.

And, if there's demand, I plan an Edinburgh event purely on platform-building, next year. Let me know, either via comments, or Twitter, whether you'd be interested.

Meanwhile, I hope this is useful to you. The link is here.

Saturday, 17 September 2011


Today I'm speaking at the Society of Authors conference in Edinburgh. My topic is Building an Online Platform and I will first be explaining to the audience that in forty minutes it is impossible to say even a decent fraction of what they need to know, and therefore that I will be putting a small resource list on my blog.

So, here it is! It is only supposed to be a starting point for beginners and to follow on from what I will have said in my talk, but do feel free to add things in the comments.

Monday, 12 September 2011


Yesterday, I did a workshoppish eventish thing for aspiring writers at the Stirling Off the Page festival and I promised that I'd put something from it up here. I'd created a list of questions that I think writers need to ask themselves to assess their readiness for publication. And here it is!

If you find the questions hard to answer, that suggests you and your book are not yet ready for publication.

How ready are you for publication?

Your genre and your readers – knowing your book
1. How well do you know your readers? What books do they read? Name three books. (You should be able to do this immediately, without struggling.)
2. Do you read and love the books your readers like? Are you an expert in your genre?
3. Why do they read? (Eg: Pure pleasure/escapism? To be challenged? To have their thoughts provoked? To learn? To identify?)
4. What do they want in a book? (Eg: Happy ending? To be scared? Action? Reflection?)
5. What would be your dream review comment?
6. On a scale of 1-10, how closely does your book match that expectation? Are you good enough yet?
7. Is your book more commercial or literary? How realistically can you place your book on that continuum? Are you comfortable with its position? (This is about how well you understand your market and how committed you are to this writing.)

Ingredients - fiction
8. In a sentence, what is your MC’s main problem/goal and what will happen if he fails?
9. Do you think that is enough? Are the stakes high enough? (Different genres have different requirements in this respect.)
10. If your MC is asleep right now, what will be his first thought on waking? (This indicates how well you know him/her and how deeply in your head he is.)
11. Have you thought about and worked at voice, pace and pov? Are they appropriate for genre? (If you haven't thought about these or feel uncertain, Write to be Published has much to help you.)

Ingredients – non-fiction
12. What are the competing books?
13. How is yours different?
14. Who needs your book? (Define your readers.)
15. Have you matched the voice/tone to that need? Have you written what those readers need and want?

Research and submission
16. Have you started to research publishers and agents?
17. Are you reading blogs/books about how to become published?
18. Are you networking or at least prepared to? (You may need to buy Tweet Right! £2.74 on Kindle or the free Kindle app for laptops etc.)

19. If it became obvious that this book won’t be published, what would you do? (If you would give up, then you don't have the right mindset for a published writer. You should be writing your next book while submitting the first - no agent or publisher wants or will take a one-book-wonder.)

Do those questions make sense? Have they challenged you or provoked you to aim higher or work harder, or to be patient? Do they daunt you or inspire you?

I'd love to know!

Most interesting question from the audience: "How do you tweet while drying your hair?"


Wednesday, 7 September 2011


Today, my blog has been invaded by aliens, barely controlled by Jonathan Pinnock. I tried to tell him that this was no666tonbutarrrrrrrrrrrrrgggggggggggghhhhh...


"Yes. I will." *eyes wobble alarmingly*

Over to Jonathan.

On page 246 of Nicola’s excellent book, Write to be Published, (you have all got a copy, haven’t you?), she makes a very flattering reference to me being a rare case of someone who’d managed to get a book deal after posting instalments of my book online. I was particularly pleased to be used as an example because I’m a long-time reader of this excellent blog, [NM bows] and I thought it might be nice to repay the compliment by telling you how it actually happened.

Towards the end of 2009 I had a problem. I was around 10,000 words into a high-concept novel (Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens) that I’d been writing on and off for two years and I had a sickening feeling that if I ever did manage to motivate myself to finish the thing it would never get published. The main problem was that when I’d originally dreamt the book up, back in 2007, the concept of a sequel to Pride and Prejudice with added aliens was pretty radical. However, after that zombie book (I’m sorry, but I can’t bring myself to name it) [NM – you’ll be glad to know that I actually haven’t a clue what you’re talking about] came out in early 2009, what I was writing now looked like a wannabe bandwagon-jumper.

You may ask why I’d only written 10,000 words in those two years. First, I had very little idea how to write a novel and took ages to get going. More importantly, the arrival of TZB [NM – The Zombie Butler? Birdbath? Bathysphere? Bob?] had dampened my enthusiasm to the point where it was lying, sodden, in the gutter of my dreams. Worse, the word on the street was that publishers were, several months on from TZB, no longer interested in mash-ups. The bandwagon had left town.

The trouble was, I still liked those 10,000 words. More importantly, so did my writer friends, who kept badgering me to write some more. Time to take radical action. Why not serialize the thing? That way I could see if it really would find an audience. Not only would that give me a reason to continue writing it, but it might just provide a publisher with enough evidence to take it on.

I decided on 100 bi-weekly blog posts, plus prologue and epilogue, which gave me two spare days in case of disaster if I ran it over a year. My 10K words gave me two and a half months in the can, so I could at least run it for that long to see if it was going to fly.

Unbelievably, it worked, and in November 2010 I signed a contract with Proxima Books, with Salt Publishing (Proxima’s parent) committing to it being a lead title for 2011!

However, before you all leap to the conclusion that the answer to all your publishing prayers is to stick your WIP online, I offer a few words of caution, if only because Nicola will shout at me otherwise. [NM – I was just getting ready to do that.] Quite right too: generally speaking, this isn’t a remotely advisable thing to do.

So why did it work for me? Here are some contributory factors: none sufficient, but all necessary.

1) Writing: OK, I’ll put aside false modesty for a moment and claim that it was actually pretty well written.

2) Structure: the story broke down well into easily-digestible 600-700 word chunks, with plenty of gags in each one and a punchline or cliffhanger at the end. This suited my way of writing – by nature I’m a short story writer and this was the first time I’d ever coaxed a narrative beyond 3000 words.

3) Marketing: I already had a reasonable social networking footprint on Twitter, Facebook, my own blog and various writing forums and I used these aggressively (although I hope not annoyingly) to promote the serialisation. I also spent a long time doing the rounds of other blogs, pestering them to feature it. I also produced a couple of very silly YouTube promo videos that (ahem) proved to be a bit of a talking point. It was a question of trying anything I could think of, and it was a LOT of work.

So would it have found a publisher if I hadn’t done this? No idea. Would I have finished it? That’s a more interesting question, and I think the answer is: unlikely. In the end, the most important thing about serialising my first novel was that complete strangers ended up wanting me to keep writing it. So would I do it again? Almost certainly not. But never say never, eh?

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention. It’s out now. Do get yourselves a copy. I think you might enjoy it.

Sorry, I think Nicola has disappeared. I'm sure she'll be back.