Monday, 31 October 2011

The key to a synopsis is to forget your book

I've always known that the best way to learn something really well is to teach it. You think you know something but until you put it into words for someone else to understand, you don't know if you know it properly. And you might find you don't.

My point? While writing my forthcoming book, Write a Great Synopsis - An Expert Guide, I have learnt something extra about how to write synopses. I learnt it from myself, I hasten to add, but it was the act of trying to explain everything about synopses as clearly and fully as possible that showed me a truth I hadn't been aware of.

So, am I going to make you wait till January when WAS comes out? Of course I'm not! I wouldn't be so cruel.
My lightbulb moment came when I was preparing to write a synopsis of Wasted, as an example to go in the book. I enjoyed writing it and it took about fifteen minutes, perhaps less. "Well, this is a doddle," I thought. "I always knew people stressed too much about synopses." I wondered why I found it easy. And then I realised.

I'd forgotten the order of events in Wasted. I'd forgotten everything except the most important events, characters and emotions, the core drivers of the book, the skeleton and the skin. I'd (accidentally) deleted from my memory everything that shouldn't be in a synopsis. And I didn't look at the book once while writing the synopsis because a) I didn't need to, which is the point and b) I'm lazy.

This made me think of two analogies which I'd already used in Write a Synopsis but which now became clearer.

The conscious human analogy 
If your synopsis were a human being, we'd see the skin and have a sense of the strong skeleton but we would not see the organs and veins, because the vital gleam in the eyes would be sufficient evidence that the body was properly constructed. Also, you need to include the ending, because otherwise you've got a body without feet.

The journey analogy
If your book is a journey, the synopsis needs to include:
1. Who is on the journey and why?
2. What is the intended destination and why?
3. What terrible thing will happen if they don't reach their destination and who or what is trying to stop them?
4. What happens to knock the travellers off course?
5. What characteristics and tools do they use to get back on course?
6. What is their actual destination and who survives and with what injuries?

Here’s what we do not need to know (unless what we're writing is an outline, which, as I explain in WAS, is different):  
1. All the detours they took along the way - unless without it we can't understand the book
2. The weather.
3. What they said to each other.
4. What the scenery was like.
5. The people they met along the way, unless without them we can't understand the book.
6. The route in order.

Because my dyslexic-behaving brain can't do sequences, I can never remember what order things happened in, or even that half of them did. This makes my brain perfect for writing synopses and the amazing thing is that until I tried teaching you lot about all this I didn't even know my brain was perfect for anything.


So my message to you today is: when writing your synopsis, cultivate a really crappy memory like mine, a memory that forgets everything except essence. To paraphrase all of our mothers: if you can't remember, it can't have been very important. And if it's not important, it has no place in your synopsis.

Therefore: whatever you do, don't look at your book when writing your synopsis. Your book has no place there.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Coco Competition Results!

I have the results of the Coco chocolate competition! The standard was stunning and you'd clearly had lots of fun writing them. I chose a shortlist and then lovely Joanne Harris very kindly chose the three winners. Here's what she said:
Hi Nicola,
GREAT shortlist! I wanted to try all of them...
Reluctantly, I have to choose only three. They are as follows, equally and in numerical order: 2, 4 and the compelling (but quite creepy) 11.
Congratulations to everyone, and thanks for including me!
Lots of love,
The Eleven Shortlisted entries

1. Teenage daughter?
Pale, alabaster looks with just a hint of a blemish beneath the smooth surface. First impression is unadulterated, exquisite, sweetness. Abruptly, a mouth-melting, throat-tingling heat explodes from the velvet creaminess. Moments later, it is extinguished by the enduring embrace of innocuous sweetness but there is awareness now, of hidden depths. Sweet, feisty, unpredictable, addictive – white chocolate with chilli. (by Clare Donaldson)

2. (Joint winner) This bar will put a love spell over you this Halloween. A smooth and scrumptious salvation: Dark as a vampire's heart yet light as a haunting ghost, it's been conjured up for you to taste the best of Scotland. Ravished with blood red cherries this witches’ delight will please the tongue and intoxicate the tastebuds. Once bitten you shall be smitten. (Kate McPhillips Age 16)

3. Roses so red they would light a fire, the petals ground with star anise and a knowledge as ancient as chocolate itself; filaments of pure vanilla stretch out of the rose heart, through layers of the richest mousse and a sparkle of salt flower, to folds of voluptuous chocolate that clothe the whole in gleaming darkness. (by Julian Hill)

4. (Joint winner) Three violet creams nestled in a tiny box. The first conjures a memory, a tiny perfume bottle with a hand-painted violet, hidden somewhere safe. The second, the ghost of the delicate Parma violet I nurtured then forgot. The last I linger over, lost in the night we made violet-infused wine and promises we couldn’t keep.  (by Kirsten Colvin)

5. Organic handmade dark chocolate with a sniff of chilli and crackle of Black Sea salt. May be sucked, nibbled, licked or gargled. Best consumed in suburban harems or woman caves. Suggested musical accompaniment: Hot Chocolate (You Sexy Thing, Live 1976). To avoid blindness wear dark glasses. Hydrate with peat whisky. Bathing generally not permitted; floating imperative. (by Elizabeth Dunn)

6. This new flavour is divine. Infused with Shiraz and shot through with chilli, each bite is a whirlwind world tour, heat rising from an African Savannah yet as sexy and spicy as Spain, and all as the dark cocoa cream melts across your tongue like a yearning heart suffused with the perfect dream. Tantric chocolate, all pleasure, no guilt. (by Andrew James)

7. Chocoreekie
This chocolate is as dark as an Edinburgh close in winter and has just a hint of smoke. The addition of cocoa nibs makes it a craggy bite, but with a swirl of marmalade added for sweetness it will appeal to
every palate. Experience the essence of Scotland’s capital; taste Chocoreekie. (by Christine Howe)

The Regency
Dream of fabulously dark and luxuriously smooth bitter-sweet chocolate, spangled with praline and expertly folded over a cracknel base. Imagine this sumptuous partnership nestling in a toasted coconut quilt and delicately topped with a bud of cherry, honey and almond Florentine. Could this be too good to be true? We think not - Dreams become reality at Coco. (by Mike Jarman)

9. Mr Darcy Addiction
A darkly rich outer shell conceals a contradictory inner secret. It caresses your tongue and floods your senses. Warming, silky honey and strong notes of spicy ginger collide as they embrace the gorgeous, sensual temptation of fragrant, succulent mango. 

And just like Mr. Darcy, once experienced, nothing else will ever come close.

You are addicted.  (by Catherine Kemp)

10. You versus the torte
Your silver fork slides into slick crumb like a scythe into a wet peat bank. Sugar-grit and the lurking bitterness of dark chocolate fill your mouth and sing the tastebuds electric. You force the nerve-punching bliss into a polite smile - but in your patent leather shoes, under the linen tablecloth, toes curl.

Sweet defeat.  (by Dayspring MacLeod)

11. (Joint winner) Salome 85% revenge chocolate is a perfect male head, hidden in edible gold foil. Lick lightly first. Dissolve. Bite the face, spill blueberry syrup, then catch real cranberry pieces tart on the tongue. The skull collapses and secret bones of white chocolate lie within. Finally, around its neck, a tiny bottle of rose petal wine to wash away the guilt. (by Julia Bohanna)

Huge congratulations to all the shortlisted writers and especially the three winners! Please always remember that a judgement like this ends up being a) difficult and b) hugely personal choice. ALL these writers and many of the non-shortlisted writers displayed great skills and imagination. It's also worth saying that my own choice of three winners would not have been entirely the same, though it also wouldn't have been entirely different. Well, OK, one of them would have been the same, but I'm not saying which...

I wonder if you noticed that one of the winners was only 16? I asked Joanne to judge all the entries regardless of age, and I pointed out that I was going to commend 16-year-old Kate's writing very highly anyway, but Joanna has put her amongst the winners, fair and square. Kate is a pupil from a school near Edinburgh. Fabulous writing!

Could the three winners please email their UK addresses to, for the attention of Kristina? 

Thanks again, everyone. It created lots of interest for the gloriousness that is Coco of Bruntsfield and I ended up buying several bars myself and not regretting it even a tiny bit! It was clearly a popular topic and it was obvious how much you all enjoyed writing your entries. Honestly, the standard was uniformly excellent.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Write a Synopsis - Expert, Snappy, Stressfree

Well, I have decided. Possibly. Yes, I am - almost - certain about the title for my forthcoming guide to synopsis-writing. But I could change my mind at any moment.

You may remember that I asked for your help, and help you did. Many of you. I said I'd give a free copy to the person whose suggestion I chose, but that became complicated because so many of you were so helpful and in the end what I chose was not exactly what anyone had suggested and yet it was informed by so many of you. So, in an All-Must-Win-Prizes sort of a way, I have decided that all must win a prize. So, ALL those who have already contributed to that discussion will win a free copy (pdf or Kindle version) as soon as it's ready, probably in the New Year when your resolutions are at their strongest.

My decision* is: Write a Synopsis - Expert, Snappy, Stressfree

* in the loosest sense of the word.

Or possibly: Write a Synopsis - Expert, Snappy and Stressfree

Or even: Write a Synopsis - An Expert Makes it Snappy and Stressfree.

Oh feckity feckity feckity. (There goes my CRB clearance. I am now officially a danger to young people.)

Erghh. I may need to ask you to vote between those three...

I loved Jan's idea of Help! I Need a Synopsis! and the various permutations of Right and Write and Sensible Guide etc, to fit the concept of branding, but I don't then want to be tied to those words for future titles. I loved Mary's Make it Snappy and Jan's In a Nutshell, but in the end I needed to describe the book more concretely, for someone who has no idea what I do. I know the word "expert" is effective, and I did want to include "write a synopsis" or "write a great synopsis" somewhere. So, although it's not the cleverest or most original combination, I like all of my possible decisions well enough: the first part is crystal clear, appropriately, and the second part is functional. And the whole thing is suitably snappy and yet full.

So, thank you! And could these people please send me an email address? Also, when you email me, if it's not likely to be 100% obvious to me which of the personages you are, please say so in your email.

Rebecca Brown
Elaine AM Smith
E. A. Brass
Juliet Boyd

Later, I look forward to bringing you the cover, designed by Andrew Brown.

Meanwhile, I'm working my way through the synopses that some of you sent for free analysis on this blog and/or for use in the book as examples. I now have a substantial backlog so any you send from now on may not be seen before you are published!

Do please comment about my choices and say which of the slight variations you prefer. Or if you hate them all...

Finally, if you know of a well-followed blog for aspiring writers that might want to be part of an extensive blog tour, do please suggest below or contact Rebecca Brown -* - who is my trusty publicist for this book! (Becky Hearne is still my lovely assistant but Becky now has a glorious proper job with Hachette as publicity officer, so I can't call on her so much, sadly.)

[Apologies - that email address was originally wrong. Now corrected.]

All publicity suggestions gratefully accepted. Meanwhile, I will be putting more synopses up here for your comment soon.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

State of flux - where we are now

I draw your attention to this excellent overview of the changing situation in publishing vs self-publishing. Libby Fischer Hellmann has used both avenues, and therefore knows of what she speaks. She compares how things were eighteen months ago with how things are now, listing changing pros and cons of each route to publication.

My message has always been, "Whatever you do, do it with eyes wide open" and that blog post will really help clarify things, I believe. It also has links to other useful posts.

I think she speaks great sense and I like her calm analysis.

To remind you of my own position:
  • As you know, I have been published many times (around 90) by trade publishers - publishers whose role is to take all the financial risk (apart from my considerable time) of production and distribution and invest in the editing, copy-editing, proof-reading and marketing of my books.
  • However, a) most trade publishers now invest far less in all of those roles for most authors, including me b) published authors are expected to do more and more for less and less return and c) some books are eminently suitable for self-published, at least by clued-up authors.
  • Therefore, as you know, I am also doing some self-publishing, under Crabbit Publishing. I have so far published Tweet Right, am about to republish Mondays are Red (details very soon!) and then will publish my in-progress ebook on how to write a great synopsis.
  • However, I still want to be published by trade publishers for some of my work. I think I am very well-placed to know which is the better form for each book of mine.
  • And I want to continue to share that knowledge with you and help you make the right decisions, too. Through Pen2Publication,  I am also currently helping a client who intends to self-publish a novel.
So, there you have it.

Oh and one more thing: I don't care about my sales as much as perhaps I should. I care many times more about putting out books I can be proud of. Commercially, I care very much that my books sell enough to keep a decent publisher happy - because otherwise I won't stay published - but riches? You can stick them.


Monday, 24 October 2011

In which Scott/Steve/Pack/Stack talks of white dog poo and pitching non-fiction

Planning to pitch a non-fiction book? Aimed at the general, commercial (as opposed to specialist) market? Would you like advice from someone who is or has been all of these things: a) bookseller (of a rather influential variety) b) a publisher (of general, commercial non-fiction) and c) an author? Look no further.

Today we are talking about 21st Century Dodos: A Collection of Endangered Objects (and Other Stuff) by Steve Stack. Those of you who've been awake on Twitter recently will know that Scott Pack and Steve Stack do more than rhyme: they are the same man. And they are here today.

First, a bit about the author: Scott Pack, who writes as Steve Stack, used to be the buying manager at Waterstone’s head office, a role which did not make him all that popular. He is now the Director of Digital Product Development at HarperCollins, a role he combines with a few other jobs at the publisher. His first book, It Is Just You - Everything’s Not Shit, was a #1 bestseller in the Humour ebook charts (a small claim to fame, but one he is more than happy to chuck around). He blogs at and tweets as @meandmybigmouth.

About the book: A fond farewell to the many inanimate objects, cultural icons and general stuff around us that find themselves on the verge of extinction.

We’ve all heard of the list of endangered animals, but no one has ever pulled together a list of endangered inanimate objects. Until now, that is. Steve Stack has catalogued well over one hundred objects, traditions, cultural icons and, well, other stuff that is at risk of extinction.

Some of them have vanished already. Cassette tapes, rotary dial phones, half-day closing, milk bottle deliveries, Concorde, handwritten letters, typewriters, countries that no longer exist, white dog poo…

…all these and many more are big a fond farewell in this nostalgic, and sometimes irreverent, trip down memory lane.

I've been reading it and very entertaining and interesting it is, too. I'll tell you something: Steve Stack knows far more about cassette tapes than anyone really should. And at last I understand, in an almost geeky way, what really went wrong with Betamax. But absolutely the most fascinating entry is the one for white dog poo.

NM: You’ve been a bookseller, publisher and author. Tell us one thing you learnt in each of those roles that helped you succeed in or understand better the others.
Ooh, blimey. Erm…

I think I learnt the same thing in each role: authors who make the effort to be nice to deal with get more support than those who don’t.
[NM adds - that is SO true. I don't see why anyone thinks being anything other than nice is a sensible thing to be in a business that is about hearts and minds.]
NM: What are the commonest mistakes you see in non-fiction pitches?
The most common is that people don’t research their market. I often get pitches for books that I would never publish at The Friday Project, never in a million years, and any numpty could have worked that out with 30 seconds of research.
[NM: no numpties read this blog, I'm glad to say. We all research properly, don't we, people? That means discovering what sorts of books each publsiher publishes and pitching appropriate ones, OK??]
NM: What discussions take place in an Acquisitions meeting that aspiring authors would do well to know about?
Actually, all of the hard work for an acquisitions meeting takes place before the meeting itself. You need to prime everyone in advance, get them on board for the project you want to pitch. Identify the people who are prepared to champion it and make sure they are vocal in the meeting.

If you have that support then you are able to present the book with confidence and enthusiasm. That is what really matters.
[NM: indeed, I've heard that editors quake before these meetings, though I'm sure Scott is entirely unquakey. It's worth adding that in most publishing companies nowadays, the editor has to persuade the number-crunchers in sales and marketing, and they care less about the author's pretty words and more about the concept and whether they can sell enough copies. That's their job. They will also work out a budget and costings at this meeting.]
NM: Can you give your top three tips for non-fiction writers?
  1. You may not be writing a novel but you still have to be a great storyteller.[NM: Good one.]
  2. Does this really need to be a book, or is it a magazine article?[NM: Good one again.]
  3. Listen to the criticism you receive from people in the business. It won’t always be right but it will almost always be helpful. [NM: interesting take. Think about that one carefully, everyone. That's a version of "Nobody knows anything."]
NM: How important is it for a non-fiction writer to have a “platform” before you will take them on? Is that view common amongst UK publishers?
It certainly doesn’t do any harm but it is by no means essential. I have published authors who have already developed a readership, either online or in print, but I have also published complete unknowns who have gone on to sell over 100,000 books.

If you have a great idea and you write it well then a platform is not always required.

I think all publishers feel more comfortable if they feel there is a fanbase or existing readership, some more than others, but all of them have taken punts as well.
NM: What will be the next dodos in the writing/publishing/book world?
Ooh, good question. Who knows? Will these new Flipbook things catch on? Will print books be wiped out by ebooks? Will hardbacks be no more? I think there will be a few casualties but the new digital age is actually making more things available so it may not be as bad as some are predicting. [NM: I totally agree. People are too fond of saying, "This much has happened in the last five years, so by 2016 we will have...". Not at all necessarily. Everything is changing so fast.]
NM: What about space dust? Surely that’s an unforgiveable omission? Scope for Volume 2? Oh, and Gumption, too! Pfffth.
Naturally, any omissions are deliberate and are absent purely to set up volume two. [NM: clever...]
People, for your pleasure, do also go and check out this Flipboard link. And if you have an ipad, for crying out loud hurry to download the free Flipboard app. Beautiful and functional, I promise.

Thank you, Scott and good luck with your book. This could be this year's stocking filler in many houses.

One more piece of advice about non-fiction from me: don't over-estimate the potential market. Be ruthless and objective about your position in the market and what the competition is  Differentiate yourself. And do go and read my interview with Stephanie Butland, who successfully pitched her book on dancing with cancer - Bah! to Cancer.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Synopsis Spotlight - The Girl on Winter's Hill

Introducing the second brave synopsis-spotlight-provider, Margaret Kirk. If you don't know how these spotlights work, please read the previous one here, and the post here in which I introduced both the task and my forthcoming book on how to write a synopsis. Which is what all this is leading up to. (And, by the way, I have - I think - chosen my title for the book. To be revealed soon!)

In your comments, you aren't necessarily meant to be saying whether you like the sound of the book, but whether the synopsis does a good job of making it clear and coherent and whether it follows the general guidelines of synopsis-writing.

The Girl on Winter's Hill - by Margaret Morton Kirk

Everybody’s got a past.  Just not one like Chrissie Fraser’s…

Chrissie can’t remember much about that summer afternoon in the hills above Rossan.  She knows what started as a lazy day with her boyfriend Rob and his fledgling rock group, ended [clunky phrasing there, Margaret, and the comma is wrong] in a car crash which left her fighting for her life.  She knows Rob, the driver, escaped unhurt, while her cousin died and her friend Liam was badly injured — Rob’s fault, according to the village rumour-mill.  What she doesn’t know is why Rob disappeared, leaving her to face the aftermath alone.  And scared.  And pregnant. [Nice effect.]

Sixteen years later and six hundred miles away, Chrissie’s made a new life for herself and her daughter [add Eve].  But when her mother’s serious illness forces a return to Rossan, she discovers the past isn’t so easily buried [perhaps be more specific? This is slightly vague. Needs better link to the “not coming to terms bit” in next para. Also burying the past is a bit of a cliché?]

When Chrissie’s mother dies, fragile fifteen year-old Eve, bullied at school, begs her to let them stay in the village she’s fallen in love with.  Realising she needs to come to terms with the events of sixteen years ago, [Better to hint earlier that she hasn’t come to terms with them, I think] Chrissie agrees. A tentative romance develops with Liam, and Chrissie hopes she’s finally laid the past to rest [Again, this is a somewhat vague phrase, not to mention being a cliché!]. She couldn’t be more wrong. [But]While she struggles with her re-emerging feelings [You are the mistress of the vague statement, tinged with cliché!]  for Rob, newly returned to Rossan, an older, darker past is reaching out to her.[Ahem.]

Fascinated by the photograph of an unknown woman she finds amongst her mother’s things, Chrissie determines to discover her identity.  But her search creates a rift with Liam, whose increasingly controlling behaviour masks a disturbing family secret. [You are actually about to say this anyway.] Unknown to Chrissie, Liam recognises the woman from the locket she’s wearing; she’s his great-grandfather Callum’s first wife, rumoured to have deserted him for her musician lover, leaving Callum vowing revenge.  Only Liam knows she never left the village.  [As an aside about the plot, I feel that this seems unlikely. How many of us know what our great-grandfather’s first wife looked like? I hope you make this credible in the actual book?]

On the day of the crash he’d stumbled on a woman’s skeletal remains hidden near his family’s farm, a locket round her neck and a knife between her ribs. Sickened [again, suspension of disbelief issue: would he really be that traumatised? This is some generations ago - I'd actually be somewhat fascinated, or at the most disturbed. Or is that just me?!] by the thought that Callum could have been the murderer, he’d panicked and covered all traces of his find.  But after the crash, his traumatised mind [For this to feel believable, we need much earlier hints in the synopsis of Liam’s a) instability and b) involvement in the crash] had started to merge past and present.  At the height of a devastating mental breakdown, Liam had believed he was Callum—when Chrissie returns to Rossan after sixteen years’ absence, she has no idea of the danger his reawakening delusions will pose. [I’m a bit confused as to when Liam’s delusion started – at the time of the crash or later? I could probably work it out but your synopsis needs to be clear on first reading.]

As Liam’s possessiveness worsens, Chrissie grows closer to Rob as he and Eve forge a strong bond.  As the bells chime for a New Year, he asks her to give their relationship another chance, and Chrissie admits she’s never stopped loving him.  [Too much detail – sometimes too much detail makes it *less* believable, not more.]

When Chrissie tells Liam she and Rob are back together, he becomes increasingly unstable.  He blames Eve’s growing bond with Rob for Chrissie’s decision to end things with him.  With ‘Callum’ more and more in control, he mounts a campaign of terror, staging a break-in at Chrissie’s house and terrorising her friends.  In a final desperate act, he abducts Eve, hoping to rewrite history[Eh?]— with Eve out of the way, he believes Chrissie will realise she belongs with him.  But Chrissie’s learned enough of what happened that day to work out where he’s taken Eve.  Back where it all began, on the Winter’s Hill above Rossan, Chrissie and Rob confront Liam.  As the police close in, Liam’s mind disintegrates and he undergoes a complete mental and physical collapse.  Eve is found, suffering from hypothermia and badly traumatised, but alive.

As Eve recovers, Chrissie’s life is at a crossroads. [Make stronger – crisis, dilemma etc] She must decide whether to give her relationship with Rob another chance, or stay in Ceann Aird, the house she’s grown to love again.  At first she tells Rob their lives are too different for things ever to work out between them.  But with time comes a measure of healing for them all, and [cliché and feels far too vague] when Rob returns to Rossan in the spring, Chrissie’s ready to give him a different answer. [Need to find a way to make that ending feel stronger and more specific.]
In my opinion this is a well written synopsis, which flows well and ticks most boxes Margaret said: “It's succinct, but at the moment that's pretty much all that's in its favour. Women's fiction, non-linear plot, interwoven time periods. Synopsis feels flat and one-dimensional, but I think the novel is a better and more sophisticated mystery than this makes it sound.” I disagree – I think it feels pretty rounded and multi-dimensional. I think it nicely weaves the strands and time-scales together in a way that gives me a good sense of the book. (Well, I assume so, as I haven’t read the book, but that’s the point, as the agent hasn’t either.)

My only criticisms, as you’ll see from my comments within the synopsis, are as follows:

1. You have a strong tendency to use clichéd and rather “wet” (sorry!) phrases to explain a situation.
2. We need more hint of Liam’s problems earlier.
3. You’ve made a couple of aspects seems unbelievable – even if they are not so in the book itself. It’s a good example of how sometimes giving too much detail makes a synopsis seem less believable – counter-intuitive, I know, but the inevitable loss of context causes problems. The knack is to find the phrase that conveys authority, without detail.

Nice work, Margaret. What do you think of my suggestions? Anyone else got any comments?

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Bah! to pitching a non-fiction book

I'm delighted to bring you an interview with a blog baby. (A blog baby is one of my blog-followers who gets a publishing deal.) Stephanie Butland is now the proud author of a brand new debut, How I Said Bah! To Cancer. Apart from the weird way in which she found her agent, her story is a classic case of write the right book, in the right way etc etc etc. Oh, and though I would never reveal publicly that someone had been a client of Pen2Publication, Stephanie has already said that she was. And a lovely client, too.

Stephanie is a delightful person and her book is great: powerful, very moving and fascinating.

About Stephanie
Stephanie Butland was diagnosed with a breast cancer in October 2008. Since then she's had surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and drug treatment, and now she's thriving. [Hooray!] She lives in rural Northumberland with her family, near the place where she grew up, close to beaches, an ice cream parlour, and most of her family. (It would be heaven if it was a little bit warmer.) Her move 'back home' after 20 years of living in London was one of the very positive side effects of her dance with cancer. 

Stephanie writes in her studio, which sits under the branches of an apple tree at the bottom of her garden. Between books and articles, she blogs and speaks about surviving cancer. Her aims are simple: to show that breast cancer is not necessarily the end of the world, and to try to make a dance with cancer easier for others by sharing the approaches and strategies that worked for her. 

When she's not writing, Stephanie trains thinking skills and creativity throughout Europe, and works with individuals to help them to think more effectively. In her spare time, she knits, spins, reads, bakes, goes to the theatre, takes long walks on quiet beaches, and makes excellent use of any shopping opportunity that comes her way. 

You'll find Stephanie's blog, and more information about her and her work, at

NM: So, Ms Butland, pitch your book to us.  Who is it for and what do you hope they get from it? 
How I Said Bah! To cancer: a guide to thinking, laughing, living and dancing your way through is for anyone dancing with cancer, and anyone who wants to understand, help, and support someone who is going through it. I hope that people who read it will be comforted and helped, and I hope they will laugh a bit. It's a mix of memoir, thinking strategies, and practical advice. As well you know, because you saw an early version of it!

NM: How did you get your agent?  
I won him in an auction! My agent, Oli Munson at Blake Friedmann, was participating in an auction to raise money for the book trade charity. Authors could bid to have their proposal and first three chapters assessed. I put in a bid, and several friends and people from Twitter chipped in too, and I won. Oli read the first three chapters, asked to see the rest, then took me on.

NM: What did that process teach you about submitting a non-fiction proposal? Can you share what you learnt, in the form of tips? Anything surprise you?
Getting an agent was the last stage in a long process. I wrote and rewrote until I thought my first few chapters were perfect, and then I had them assessed by you via Pen2Publication, and I realised that there was much more work to do - so I kept writing, polishing, writing, polishing. Other friends in publishing were generous with time and invaluable advice.

My tips are:
  • Every single word has to earn its place in a manuscript.  
  • Getting your ms read by people who will give you honest and robust feedback is essential. The less they know you, the better. Some of the best feedback I got was after putting a shout out on Twitter for readers.  
  • You are not entitled to be published. Accept help gratefully and rejection gracefully, and keep learning.  
NM: Once you got your agent, what did you have to do to the book? What did you learn from your agent during this process? 
I didn't have to do a lot. I'd written a short epilogue, addressed to people who were dying, and Oli rightly pointed out that this wasn't really in the spirit of the book. Oli was very positive about the book, which gave me great confidence, and I pretty much left him to it - I'm a great believer in letting people use their expertise.

NM: What happened then - ie how did Oli get the deal? Did your publisher make changes/suggestions?  
I was away from home, running a training course, when I got an email from Oli to say that Hay House wanted to have a meeting 'in advance of making an offer'. After that it all happened very quickly: we had a meeting in which people said ridiculously lovely things about me and the book, which was slightly bizarre, as when you are unpublished you somehow imagine that everyone in publishing hates books, hates writers, and especially hates you - and within a fortnight the offer had come in.

NM: Did you then have to make any changes that you were a little bit sad about, even at first? Did you have to throw out any babies? If so, how do you feel about that now?
Not really. I'd discussed some small changes in emphasis with my editor at Hay House, Carolyn Thorne, who was always very clear that this was my book, and I must be happy with it. Before submitting the manuscript I went through it one more time, sharpening up and expanding some bits and taking out others, and really felt that I'd done the best that I possibly could. Of course, copy-editing made it even better.

NM: What do you wish I'd asked you?!
Can't think of anything, I'm afraid!

Thank you, Stephanie!

Questions or comments, anyone? I have a signed copy to give away to a randomly-chosen commenter in the UK.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Synopsis Spotlight - Glass Houses

As you know, I'm writing a book on synopsis-writing. Last week, I offered you the chance to have your synopsis put under the spotlight, with a view to a) blog-readers commenting construcively and b) possibly having your synopsis (and some comments) featured in the book as an exemplar.
The first brave writer under the spotlight is Jackie Buxton, with Glass Houses, which she says is general fiction for adult readers. (She also says it's likely to appeal to women over 30 - I suggested she doesn't specify the age, but I do agree that it's more likely to be read by women. Sorry to those who object to that...) Jackie says that her problem is in making it succinct. I actually think she has made it relatively succinct (except in some details) and, in some ways, too succinct! You’ll see my comments in italics and brackets. Where I’ve crossed things out, those crossings out create the need to express the sentence differently but I am merely trying to give a sense of what detail we don’t need.
Glass Houses (103,000 words) by Jackie Buxton
There’s an [fatal] accident on the M62 motorway.  We see ETTA DUBCEK (35) sitting in the wreckage of the car in front of hers, holding the hand of a stranger who’s fighting for her life. [Add eg: and who caused the accident in a moment of carelessness.]
[Add: That stranger is] TORI WILLIAMS (50) is plunged into a coma after sending the text which allegedly causes the pile-up in which two adults and a baby die.  With the support of DOUG, Tori’s affable husband of 23 years, and daughter, CARLY, her body twitches its way out of paralysis as she attempts to force words from her lips.  [All we need to know is family supportive [eg] as she slowly [?] recovers.]
Etta finds it hard to shake off the experience [so, is this her guiding emotion? Doesn’t feel strong enough.] of being with Tori as they waited for the ambulance.  With a fraction of a second’s hesitation, she, too, might have been a killer.   Initially intending to visit Tori just once, she strikes up a friendship with her mother, RUBY, and becomes one of Tori’s few staunch defenders.  ‘I didn’t sit with a murderer,’ she writes, ‘I sat with somebody who’d done something foolish.’  Etta’s friend, PEARL, challenges this sympathy for Tori but realises that there is more to it than Etta is willing to admit. [Need more about this - or maybe later.]
A horde of reporters greets Tori as she emerges from hospital with blatant disabilities and scars.  The press is camped out on her doorstep.  Her business, Party People, has folded. [She becomes a damaged recluse.]Nobody invites her to dinner and the furthest she strays from home is the café in Out Patients.  When she is charged with the lesser offence of Driving Without Due Care and Attention, the family of the baby who died at the scene vow to sue. 
[Cut following para to the bone.] But Tori is only fifty and is not prepared to live the rest of her life trapped in this way.  [Does anything preciptate the change of heart?] She confronts journalists, becomes a regular on radio phone-ins – respected for her honesty.  She takes a sandwich board to the high street and amasses signatures from those who have also made mistakes.  The quiz show, ‘Tori’s Truth’, is launched to great acclaim and her presentation to sixth-formers on her, ‘Moment of Madness’ is an enormous success.  She is even training as a Samaritan.  But most of all, her positive attitude is catching.  There’s a buzz around the country.  Even the press are on board. [Delete some examples.]
Doug, however, cannot stand the attention.  He fears for Tori once the media bubble has burst and has promised their daughter that he will keep the press away. In a final attempt to persuade her to reject this new lifestyle, he leaves her.  Tori is devastated but cannot go back to her life pre-accident[Just say that after months of arguing/***/ etc, their relationship collapses and he leaves. Give a sense of how long this takes.]
Etta and Tori eventually meet. Etta, too, has a story to tell.  The pair bond, providing much needed emotional support for each other. [Add something more concrete.] Before a lunch date with Etta, Tori meets with her unpredictable step-father, GERALD.  He is a serial womaniser, no longer married to her mother but still keen to be a part of the family.  He blames Tori’s notoriety and new outspoken behaviour for the break-up of his latest relationship [this feels unlikely – find stronger motivation, or explain?]Her disabilities force her to walk holding his arm.  He is walking too fast.  He pushes her in anger.  She falls into the road and is hit by a car.
Paramedics are en-route.  A switched-on passer-by calls Doug from Tori’s phone.  Tori reflects.  She’s re-built her reputation from the lowest of bases.  Her contribution to society is so much greater than before the text message, her moment of madness, but she will always have blood on her hands.[Simply say, eg, “But Tori sees this as a way out – she has lost the will to live.”]
Doug is pacing down the road towards her.  She does not want to live without him.  Her heart is slowing.   Her chin sinks to her chest.  ‘When I wake...’ she thinks.  It is for the reader to decide how they feel about her death.  Now to Gerald.  How will society react to his moment of madness? How will his life be affected? The transiency of our lives continues. [Too many unanswered questions, ones we don’t sufficiently care about because Gerald only just arrived.]
This is an example of a synopsis that would raise concerns for the agent or publisher because the story feels somewhat thin for the 103k words. We’re left with some questions which the synopsis should answer. (They may be answered wonderfully in the book but there's a doubt in the synopsis.)
  1. Who the hell is Etta and what is her secret?
  2. Why should we care about Gerald? He’s a “serial womaniser” and appears only in order to kill the woman we’ve come to sympathise with. It doesn’t feel as though there’s enough about him before the climactic scene, and yet not enough after either. 
  3. Who is the main character? We know why we should care about Tori but what about Etta? If she’s equally “main”, we need to know the part she plays; if she’s a secondary character, her role in relation to Tori seems so crucial that we should know her secret.
There is sometimes too much detail (“Doug is pacing down the road towards her”) and yet this is a 103k novel, so what major plot elements have been omitted? The knack is not in making a long or complex plot seem simple but in telling it succinctly, which are too different things. For example, “after several episodes in which x realises that y…” can cover fifty pages in half a sentence. The key is not in telling every episode but in making it clear that something has happened, something meaty and important.
Jackie, congratulations in getting this far. I would not have picked your synopsis if it was awful! There are some significant virtues: it reads quite elegantly and smoothly and is clearly expressed. I picked it because it had some examples of faults that could be identified and rectified. The main problem (I feel) is that it reads as being too thin. Assuming that you definitely have enough action and intrigue to fill 103k words, you need to give a sense of that.
Readers - your comments! Please bear in mind the genre. It's not a thriller so don't demand thriller content. Also, remember that we are judging the synopsis, not the book itself - though there may be aspects that cross-over.
Jackie, thank you! I'll let you know if I use it in the book and if you want to redraft your synopsis to show how you responded to our comments, that's great.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The 25-word hook revisited

My recent post about creating a 25-word hook for your book generated a huge response - 115 comments so far. And, as I said there, I was preparing a talk/workshop on the subject, at Wordstock. That event has now happened and I promised the workshopees that I'd blog again and give everyone another chance to pitch a 25-word hook. And here I am.

Do, please read that post first, but I will recap or re-express here what we're looking for in a mini-pitch like this.
  1. WHO? Focus on the main character. Forget the name - we don't care about the name as much as what sort of character it is. Abandoned orphan, vengeful divorcée, insect-collecting stalker - all these are more interesting by a mile than Danny, Susan or John. I'd say only include the name if it's the best and most economical way to do it.
  2. WHAT? Focus on the conflict, the drama the goal, the pursuit. Big it up - struggles, battles, fights are all better than decides, wants, resolves.
  3. OR WHAT? The stakes - what does the character stand to lose if he fails?
The method I suggested in my workshop was this, but this is only a suggestion:
  1. Start with an epithet for your MC: abandoned orphan etc
  2. Brainstorm for two minutes, writing down all the things about your book you can think of - themes, events, climaxes, all the words which describe it or what it's about; some must be about your MC and his/her struggle/personality/emotions.
  3. Circle the ten most important and compelling words or phrases, of which at least 3 must be about the MC.
  4. Circle the 4 most compelling of those ten.
Those four elements plus the epithet are the basis of your 25-word pitch (though of course you can adjust them to fit). You can also use the other six if you want and have room.

Final tip: include wolves. (As we learnt in the previous post, when we realised that Joy hadn't told us about the wolves. Never forget the wolves!) Or, as we discovered in the workshop, hyenas. Wild animals are good. No, seriously: the point is that you need to identify and be aware of the emotional chord-tuggers and emphasise them. Wolves do something to us, as do war, death, magic, dragons, blood, wild moors, abandonment, snakes, the apocalypse and chocolate. Obviously.

Someone asked a very sensible question at the end of the workshop: where would you use this 25-word pitch? Bearing in mind that I've also said that this 25-word thing is an arbitrary (but very adequate and realistic) length, you would use it or a version of it:
  1. At the start of the paragraph in your covering letter in which you describe your book.
  2. At any point when you're asked to say what your book is about.
  3. To store in your heart as you write, so you know what it is that you're doing. It's the core of your book and should be kept at your writer's core: your heart.
Now, would you like to pitch your hook here? Some rules:
  1. If you pitched it on the previous post and received helpful comments, please don't pitch it again -we will just be overwhelmed. Well, I will be.
  2. If yours was one of the ones I didn't have time to comment on before, DO please pitch it again. I apologise for not getting to you before.
  3. If you've never pitched one, please do so!
  4. Please comment on each other's - don't leave it all to me.
  5. If you use more than 25 words, I will IGNORE you and so should everyone else.
  6. Hurry up because tomorrow this blog will be taken over by a competition with prizes of chocolate.
Go hook us!

Monday, 10 October 2011

Your synopsis made short, sweet and stress-free

I am writing a book about how to write a great synopsis. I know this will make you fall at my feet in gratitude and that you are already almost literally drooling with anticipation. Possibly even literally, but I prefer not to think about that too closely. Calm yourselves and go and take a cold shower or something.

Because I know it will be hard for some of you to wait for a book of such enormous necessity, I have a plan. I will now have a series of Synopsis Spotlights on the blog, via which YOU will be able to pitch your synopsis to your fellow writers (and anyone else who reads this blog) and get their constructive criticism and help to improve it. In the past I have had Submission Spotlights, which have been hugely useful to those writers brave enough to expose their work to public viewing.

I've just remembered that I did also start to do this with synopses some time ago. Here was Dan Holloway's synopsis spotlight.

Here are all my posts giving advice on synopses. Please read at least some of them before posting your own. My forthcoming book has much more to say, much more succinctly.

OK, ready? Here's what to do:
  1. Your synopsis should be no more than two sides of A4 ("normal" font and size etc, single-line-spaced).
  2. Send it as a Word (not pdf) attachment to
  3. In the body of your email, tell me a) genre and age-range and b) something (just a short sentence) about any problems you are having with the synopsis - eg is this a non-linear novel? What do you think is wrong with it? What made it difficult?
Please read these important notes. They form Terms and Conditions and if you send me your synopsis you are agreeing to these conditions.
  1. I cannot guarantee to feature your synopsis on the blog. I will be looking for a range of different issues, and I may simply have too many to use, or yours may be too similar to another.
  2. If I do use it, I take no responsibility for any consequences. No one has ever been treated harshly in these spotlights and I would not use a piece which I thought might come in for highly negatively critical responses. I will remove any comments I consider unfair.
  3. If I feature your synopsis, I reserve the right to reproduce it (and possibly some comments) in the book I'm writing on synopses. I undertake to do this in a positive and respectful way and will give you the opportunity to read the relevant section in advance and to object to any comment that makes you feel uncomfortable. You will not be remunerated for the insertion - sorry! - but you will be thanked in the credits and will receive a free pdf of the book, with certain restrictions. Please do not send your synopsis in if you are not willing in principle for it to be featured in the book.
So, submit succinct synopses snappily. Seriously.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Never say never self-publish a novel: Catherine Ryan Howard visits

OK, I'll admit it: I'm a bit of a fan of Catherine Ryan Howard. Catherine is one of self-publishing's success stories and that success has come about through her being clever, nice, strategic and a very engaging writer. I think her attitude to the whole business is utterly professional and she is well worth listening to. I read and enjoyed her first highly successful memoir, Mousetrapped: A Year and A Bit in Orlando, Florida, and agree with her ruthless analysis of why it wasn't accepted by a trade publisher. I bought both the ebook and POD versions of her bible of self-publishing - Self-Printed: the Sane Person's Guide to Self-Publishing - and very much followed her strict (scarily so) instructions when I came to write and publish Tweet Right - The Sensible Person's Guide to Twitter. In fact, was there possibly some subconscious influence on that title??

But Catherine was on record as saying she would not self-publish a novel. And now, she has. So I dragged her here to explain herself.

But first: about Catherine:
Catherine Ryan Howard is a 29-year-old writer, blogger and enthusiastic coffee-drinker. She currently lives in Cork, Ireland, where she divides her time between her desk and the sofa. She blogs at

And about her novel, Results Not Typical:
The Devil Wears Prada meets Weightwatchers and chick-lit meets corporate satire. Through their Ultimate Weight Loss Diet Solution Zone System, Slimmit International Global Incorporated claim they’re making the world a more attractive place one fatty at a time. Their slogans “Where You’re Fat and We Know It!” and “Where the Fat IS Your Fault!” are recognised around the globe, the counter in the lobby says five million slimmed and their share price is as high as their energy levels. But today the theft of their latest revolutionary product, Lipid Loser, will threaten to expose the real secret behind Slimmit’s success...The race is on to retrieve Lipid Loser and save Slimmit from total disaster. If their secrets get out, their competitors will put them out of business. If the government finds out, they’ll all go to jail. And if their clients find out… Well, as Slimmit’s Slimming Specialists know all too well, there’s only one thing worse than a hungry, sugar-crazed, carb addict – and that’s an angry one. Will the secret behind Slimmit’s success survive the day, or will their long-suffering slimmers finally discover the truth? Available now in paperback and e-book editions.

NM: You self-published Mousetrapped because you recognised that (and why) a publisher wouldn't take it; you knew that although you could find readers who would like it, there would not be enough for a publisher to recover investment. Is the same true of Results Not Typical?
Essentially, yes. Results was on submission for nearly a year, and even bagged me a meeting with the editorial director of one of the biggest publishers in Ireland/UK. (That was quite the exciting afternoon, let me tell you!) But it was Mousetrapped-scented déjà vu – everyone who read it had positive things to say, but ultimately they felt it wasn’t suitable for the Irish/UK chick-lit market. One editor said that UK/Irish readers wouldn’t warm to the satirical nature of it, another said the humour was too slapstick and yet another said they she loved it, she just didn’t love it enough. (Surely the most infuriating rejection!) They all said there was something there – somewhere – and recommended that I go off and write something more mainstream, more meaty. I was getting that banging-head-off-brick-wall feeling again, so I stopped submitting it so I could take a step back and regroup. I started work on the Something More Mainstream & Meaty, but as I did, an evil idea began to form in my head...
NM: You said that you would never self-publish a novel. Why did you say that and why have you changed your mind, you naughty person?
I said it because at the time, I believed non-fiction was the only genre that could really suffer from the “We Like It But There’s No Market For It” rejection. I mean, if your novel was good enough to be published they’d publish it, right? But publishing houses just don’t have as much money as they did before to take a chance on something new (if they ever had it) and if you’ve written something that doesn’t neatly fit into an existing genre, then it’s something new. Publishing is a business at the end of the day, and me and my book were extremely high risk. Too high risk.

But I’m a business too – a self-publishing business. In March of this year, Mousetrapped had been on sale for a year and I’d managed to offload 4,000 copies of it. Up until that point I’d looked upon my self-publishing adventures as something to keep me in coffee grounds until some Fairy Editor-mother came along with a six-figure deal (hey, a girl can dream...), but I realised then it was time to start treating it like a serious business, like my actual career. I made two decisions: to write and release the sequel to Mousetrapped, a book called Backpacked, and to self-publish Results Not Typical. The editors who rejected it because they felt it wouldn’t do well in the Irish/UK market were undoubtedly right – they are the experts – but I don’t have to sell to any one territory. I can sell worldwide. Plus, I already have an established readership – I’m not starting from scratch – and there’s only a miniscule financial risk involved for me, relatively speaking, because I sell e-books and print-on-demand paperbacks. So for me, doing this is extremely low risk.

Do I hope Results sells a gazillion copies and that all the editors who rejected it burst into tears of regret while emitting wails of despair? Yes, of course. Obviously. But even if it does sell a gazillion copies, those editors will still be right. A book can be wholly unsuitable for traditional publication, yet do well when the author self-publishes it. That doesn’t mean either side was wrong. What matters is that both sides agree the book has merit, and that there’s people out there, somewhere, who’ll be interested in reading it. I just need less of those people than publishers do to say, “Okay. Let’s go.”
NM: Anyone who self-publishes has to spend huge amounts of time on marketing, no? And trust me, although published authors have to do stacks, too, you DO have to do more as a self-pubber. I know. So, how do you manage it and can you pass on some tips?
I barely manage it, to be honest. [NM adds: thank you, thank you, thank you!] My computer is on almost as much as I’m awake. In the last few months I took a step back from Twitter, etc. so I could write Backpacked, and that is reflected in my sales. If you stop working, the books stop selling. I feel like I have some momentum now but still, I have to keep working at it.

My advice would be to concentrate first on having a great “hub”. For me, that’s my blog. That’s always my number one priority and I put more time into it than anything else. If I have time, I’ll do things like Facebook, Twitter, etc. but I always make sure my blog is up to date and offering new, valuable content, no matter what my writing schedule is. I think if you do that, the whole online platform/book promotion/tweeting incessantly thing becomes infinitely more manageable. Blogging brings people to you, and that’s a whole lot easier than trying to go out there and find them.

Having said that, I have absolutely no time for the whingers and moaners who are all, “I just want to write. I just want to concentrate on my craft. It’s all about the art for me, darhling. I don’t have time for Twitter...” etc. etc. Even if you sign a deal with a major publisher, you are going to have to promote your book – and rightly so. It’s like a certain young Hollywood actress who claims to hate publicity and only wants to make indie movies. How many movies no one goes to see because they don’t know they exist does she think she’s going to get to make, eh?
NM: What have you learnt about writing since writing your first book?
My favourite piece of writing advice has always been “Write the book you want to read” but what I’ve learned is that while doing that’s all well and good, you need to write the book you want to read that someone else might one day want to read too. Otherwise, there’s no point. With Mousetrapped, I definitely strayed into self-indulgence in places. I was enjoying writing about a certain thing or place, and I thought, Well, I like this and this is my book, so... but you have to re-write with the end reader in mind. If you don’t, you won’t have any.
NM: What have you learnt about publishing since publishing your first book?
I’m more convinced than ever that luck plays a huge part in success, whether it be traditional or self-publication. You can certainly “prime” yourself to receive luck by doing things like writing a good book, acting professionally at all times, doing a lot of online promotion, etc. etc., but there’s no sure-fire way to sell books. You can promote a book 24/7/365 and sell 50 copies, and you can sit back and do nothing and yet sell 5,000. All you can do is strive to make luck your only variable. Do everything you can and then wait as long as you can. As I type this I’ve sold around 8,500 self-published books, but I sold less than half of them – about 3,000 – in the first year (March 2010-March 2011) and only 500 of them in the first six months (March-September 2010). The first month I sold 62 copies. But I hung on, and I kept plugging away. Then, luck came. If I’d given up a few months in, I wouldn’t have be around to receive it.
NM: What do you wish I'd asked you? Answer it...
Oh, you’re good. You’re very good. I’m going to use that one myself in future!

Well, I suppose since this is a blog tour to promote my new novel, Results Not Typical, any opportunity to plug Results Not Typical, subtly or otherwise, is fine by me, I’m going to pretend that I wished you’d asked me why I chose to write Results Not Typical, a book about an evil weight loss company.

*cough*Results Not Typical!*cough* Well, Nicola, I’m glad you asked why I wrote Results Not Typical. (!)

It’s because a) I’m still annoyed about a certain bestselling chick-lit title that had the protagonist banging on and on about “ballooning up to 10 stone”, b) I think the weight loss industry has been asking to be satirised for years and years and c) I, fortunately or unfortunately, have plenty of experience in that area, most recently with a scary cult-like organisation that forbade me from eating 99.9% of all foods and tried to convince me that decaf coffee was a worthwhile thing. I’m still overweight but, hey, I got a novel out of it, didn’t I?
Would you like to buy Catherine's book?  (No, Catherine, not you, silly.)
Results Not Typical on Amazon UK is here.
Results Not Typical on Amazon US is here.

Would you like a chance to win one? If you visit Goodreads here you can enter a giveaway to win one of five paperback copies of Results Not Typical. Open for entries from September 30th-October 31st. Open to all countries.

People, if you plan to self-publish, please do read Self-Printed. And if you just want to curl up with a good piece of fiction, think Results Not Typical.

Thank you, Catherine, and good luck with all your books.

Monday, 3 October 2011

A young reader visits and wows me with awesomeness

Writing for teenagers is a tough way of earning a living. Virtually impossible when you write stand-alone books like mine. Most teenagers understandably tend not to buy books, preferring to borrow them from their school library - which is FAB from a cultural, social, emotional etc point of view but from an earning-a-living point of view, not so much. (School library borrowings don't provide author income, but borrowing from a public library does.)

However, every now and then something happens which reminds me why I love teenage readers more than any other readers in the world, even if I can't earn a living from them. And when I say "teenage", I mean anyone from the age of about 11, because that's when it all kicks off. (See Blame My Brain if you want to know why.)

Recently, after a school event in Devon, one of those things happened. I had an email from an 11-year-old girl, Iseult Merlin, who had been in the audience and who hadn't been able to ask her questions. And they were the most extraordinarily deep and fascinating questions, as you will see.

Some of you are writing or hoping to write for teenagers. Some people think this must be an easy thing to do because, you may think, teenagers won't think as deeply as an adult or worry about hidden meanings or anything. How wrong could you be! I have always known how deeply they think, otherwise why would I so love writing for them?

With permission from Iseult and her mother, Lalla, I now reproduce the questions and my answers.  All the questions are about Deathwatch, which Iseult says she loved.

Iseult: At the end of the story it was clear that even the ‘villain’, (the stalker) – was someone who was a victim of a past tragedy and to be pitied. Do you think most villains are really victims?
Well, I think the most interesting ones are. If we say that a villain is a victim we give him an excuse and rather than saying, "He's bad" we say "He's bad because..." What I would never want to do is say, "He's bad because...and so that's ok." I think we all have to stand up for free will and choice, though people who are very damaged by circumstances have tougher choices.
Iseult: At the end I was left feeling sorry for the old man who had done the school visit with his insects. Is it important to leave some characters without a happy resolution to their story?
I think I perhaps wanted to show what an old man might feel like in front of a whole classroom of teenagers. I also think some people don't have a happy resolution to their stories in real life and I think it's OK (but not necessary) to show that. Also, in fiction, we do tend to leave minor characters to their own devices and not tie everything up happily for them. I felt sorry for him too but he felt very real to me and I needed to think what he would really have done, more than what I wanted him to do.
Iseult: Cat’s vulnerability to her stalker is largely caused by her rebellion against her parents’ rules: she goes on ‘Phiz’ despite her parents’ ban, giving away too much information about herself; she walks home alone when they want to collect her in the car. She is saved by her athletic ability, something her parents are keen she should continue, though she has doubts. This seems to put her parents in the right and Cat in the wrong: is this intentional?
Wow! I don't know! I suppose that if Cat is in the wrong then the readers (who are on Cat's side and who are more like Cat than like her parents) will see inside their own hearts and start to put themselves in her shoes. And, of course, parents are sometimes right! Basically, though, I'm just telling the story as I feel it, rather than thinking what ought to happen.
Iseult: At the end we see that Cat is taking her future into her own hands. When she kills the spider in her room she is tackling her fears; when she decides to continue as a runner but to cut down on swimming she is shaping her own future. But many of the characters can’t do this because of mental illness – schizophrenia or gulf war syndrome. Is mental illness the real villain?
Wow again! Yes, I rather think you are right. Mental illness is an incredibly powerful hurdle or brick wall, stopping people being able to do what they want or need. And I guess that your point about Cat taking her future into her own hands is crucial - because when you have mental illness you lose control (some or all) of your own future, or it must feel like that from inside. Maybe that's the aim of the doctors caring for patients with mental illness: to give them back control.
Iseult: Most of the characters, although they seem separate at the start, are linked by an invisible web of past connections. Is this why the book has a spider theme?
[Note to my readers: NOW do you see what I mean?? Is this not brilliant??]
On on level: No! The book has a spider theme because I don't like spiders and insects and nor do lots of other people, so I thought it would be creepy and fascinating and thrilling and nasty.
On another level: there's a view that says that if a reader takes a meaning or message from a book, the meaning or message is there and valid. So, if you think that's why there's a spider theme, you are correct, because that is a meaning for you. It wasn't intentional, but the mind works in mysterious ways. And if I was as clever as you, I could easily have done it intentionally!
Remarkable questions, Iseult, and it is a total privilege for me to be able to write for you and other readers like you.

To buy Deathwatch or Blame My Brain or any of my books, please either support your nearest or favourite bookshop, or use my Amazon store here. Thank you!