Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Small is not always beautiful

Very useful post here from Writer Beware about the pros and cons of being published by a small publisher.

Do read the whole post, as it contains wonderful advice, but can I draw your attention especially to these points?
  • "Reputable publishers do not advertise for authors on Craigslist or in writers’ forums, or buy ads online or in print, or mass-mail authors out of the blue with invitations to submit."
  • "...reputable publisher’s website will be book-focused - it will publicize its authors, and try to attract readers. A questionable publisher’s website will be service-focused - it will promote itself, and try to attract writers."
  • "Be wary of any small press whose website contains large amounts of verbiage about how closed-minded the traditional publishing industry is, or tells scary stories ... It may be an author mill trolling for clients, or an amateur endeavor staffed by frustrated authors."
Those points are warnings about disreputable small presses but many other small presses, as the article says, are hugely well-meaning but under-staffed or resourced - though working terrifically hard to overcome that. Be prepared to do much more publicity work yourself if you're with a small press. On the other hand, this means greater control for you. It's tiring but satisfying. And nowadays, believe me, almost all writers have to do masses of publicity anyway.

Anyway, food for thought. The article expresses it all better than I could so please read it!

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

#MondaysareRed competition results

Lots of you joined in the MondaysareRed launch competition with gusto. Thank you! A great selection of the entries is below, taken from Twitter and the blog:

Joanna Cannon had some amazing entries:
Some Mondays are the beige corduroy of procrastination.

Sundays are knitted in shades of childhood and the rose-tinted pull of yesterdays.

Saturdays are the fresh white of laundered sheets, beating on a clothes line.

Fridays are the sharp green of Summer bracken on a walk of long ago.

Thursdays are heavy, velveted purple. They hush and whisper and curtain my weekend just out of sight.

Wednesdays are sandstone yellow. A dry, dusty footpath, bridging a river of days.

Tuesdays are deep slated grey. Calm and unflustered and darkened with rain .

Authorofbree: Mondays are the sticky, filthy feel of wet sand on your fingertips

Catdownunder: Tuesday is the green top of a carrot

Wednesday is white heat. The herald of the first contraction and the push toward a dazzling new day.

Fridays are the grey in the heart of a lonely schoolchild, bleeding darker as she creeps her way home.
MikeCail: Saturdays can be either glorious red and white or ominous purple and black, depending on what Final Score says at 4:45pm. (!)

Black Saturday, bottomless pit of laundry, ironing and half-finished DIY projects.

Soft caramel brown Wednesday blends together the top and the tail.
Fridays are magenta. Adrenalin fuelled, speeding, erupting into passionate fires. A promise for Saturday.

Sundays are black. A drawing down of blinds on freedom. A new working week waits, cloaked in shadows.
Almostmoriarty: Sundays – a melancholy grey, lifted slowly to dirty white with church bells, dog in leaves and sleepy fires.

Mcrogerson: Sundays are chestnut brown, scented with woodsmoke, old papers and warm wool.

Angrychem: Wednesdays are tinged green with uncertainty, poised between Tuesdays, blue, and Thursdays, shading triumphantly into orange.

Laura_E_James: Sunday swings to the song of the golden sax; a round sound for a wholesome day.

Jo: Sundays are foggy - in that you-know-there-is-something-out-there-but-can't-quite-find-it sort of way.

Out of the blue comes Monday: a grumpy teenager smelling like coffee. 
Thursdays are thirsty. Sandy, 30, goes begging for guineas for Guinness.
Dirtywhitecandy: Mondays are red. So are all the other days. Thank god for hair dye. (!)

Helen: Sunday starts off an egg-yolk yellow. By Sunday evening it has turned to blackest black as the cloud of Monday morning approaches.

Jenni: Saturdays are the emerald jealousy of party invites mixed the white of an empty computer screen.

Melinda: Saturday mornings: the caramel of cinnamon-sprinkled latte lie-ins

Jason: Monday morning dawned black as it always did with the memory of the homework I hadn't done, but today it was haloed in bright yellow; a yellow which whispered, 'Mandy.'

A special mention for poor Clare Wartnaby, who had an interview the next day and therefore could only feel, “Tuesdays are scary.” I hope it went well!

Anyway, I said the winners of the Crabbit bags would be picked at random, not based on any other kind of judgement, and so the winners are…drum roll…




Well done! Email your addresses to and I’ll get your bags to you as soon as possible.

Thank you to everyone for joining in and revealing your talent for synaesthetic writing.

I do hope you bought a copy of Mondays are Red or at least have told someone about it? I can’t tell you how much I need you! A lot is riding on this and if it doesn’t work decently I won’t do it with the rest of my novels. Pretty pleeeese with bells on, if you think I’m worth it. Amazon UK link is here and US is here. (I’m currently trying to find out why the US page doesn’t have the correct product description and reviews - it merely has a review from a librarian who wrongly thought teenagers wouldn't understand  the book. I found that review rather patronising nine years ago and that feeling hasn't waned!)

Friday, 25 November 2011

LOOK! A fab trailer for Mondays are Red!

I know I've already given you a post today (see below this post) but I'm far too excited not to tell you this. And I will also not be able to resist jumping up and down on Twitter a bit over the weekend, so I need to warn you about that.

What? THIS. Do I have a clever daughter or what?

Mondays are Red launches on Monday - did I say that already? - but it's always possible that eagle-eyed people might find it earlier... *cough*

My own journey - not a pretty story. Part 1

Many people who read Write to be Published comment on the story at the end, when I tell the details of my difficult journey to publication. People often say I'm "brave" to have told it. I don't think so. I have nothing to hide. People see me now - strong, healthy, confident, full of ridiculous energy - and find it hard to believe that I was none of those things in my younger adulthood.

For those of you who haven't heard the story, I tell it now. It's neither pretty nor short. Get coffee. It also explains the whole answer to the question: Why do you spend so much time helping writers who are trying to be published?

Reproduced from Write to be Published with kind permission of Snowbooks.

This book is a case of “Do as I say and not as I used to do.” I failed, as you know, for many years. Twenty-one years of failure to have a novel published. Towards the end of that time, I did have some small things published, home learning books mostly – they did very well in terms of sales, and many are still in print, but it was not what I wanted. I wanted, desperately, to be published as a novelist. Failure made me ill and consumed me with jealousy. It’s not a pretty story. It’s also a personal story, because every story of a writer struggling and failing is personal. Everything is wrapped up in it: health, family, psyche, location, support, income, and more. So, here’s my story.

Aged twenty, wondering what on earth a Cambridge degree in Classics and Philosophy was for, I decided that I wanted to be A Novelist. I knew I couldn’t earn a living immediately – hollow laugh – so I needed a job. I went to London, where streets are paved with wondrousness, and got a job cooking for an advertising agency, and dinner parties for Belgravia ladies who wanted strawberries only in December and smoked salmon if it was twice as expensive as the stuff their neighbours had.

And I wrote. I started a novel and also wrote stories aimed at women’s magazines, none of which got published, because they were completely wrong for their market. I had something published in Reader’s Digest and was paid £150 for about 50 words, an enormous payment in the early 1980s. My photo was on page one. Fame and fortune, I thought. I was almost right about fame: on a bus, I saw a man reading it, looking back and forth between the picture and me. I grinned. He asked me to sign it. My first signing!

Meanwhile, I was writing The Novel, on a cheap type-writer, while working as an English teacher. Somehow, in holidays and evenings, the novel grew and was finished. I sent it off. And received it back. Often. Each time I “improved” it. Trouble is, sometimes they said it was too long, and sometimes too short, so I was confused. One praised the original plot and another criticised its traditional nature. There was no internet and little advice available. I knew no one in the business, no one who was published, no one who was even trying.

Every time it came back, I fell apart. To most people, I seemed fine. But inside I was devastated that I couldn’t find the key to publication. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong. I felt useless.

After three years as an English teacher, I decided to give myself a year of writing full-time, really going for it, because being a teacher was incredibly exhausting and time-consuming and I couldn’t write enough. I also wasn’t well. I had glandular fever, toxoplasmosis and a couple of knee operations. So, supported by my lovely husband, I gave in my notice for the end of that third year. A month before term ended, I discovered I was pregnant. So, I didn’t get my year of full-time writing: I got a lovely daughter. But I was still sending off that bloody novel, still getting it thrown back. I’d revised it endlessly and didn’t know what to do. So I did the right thing and started another one.

We moved to Edinburgh and soon had our second daughter. I was still writing. But my health wasn’t good and I now believe that this was down to the gnawing pain of failure. I wanted publication so much and I was trying so hard. I felt I was good enough, so why wasn’t it happening? It wasn’t enough to be a mother, wife, cook and damn good house-person; I wanted more and I wanted it so much that it was making me ill. Postnatal depression was diagnosed, followed by an under-active thyroid, followed by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or M.E. The thyroid was true, and I still take thyroxine, but the rest wasn’t: it was Bruised Soul Syndrome. I was damaged where it matters. I was happy as a mother and wife, but I had a chasm where “myself” should be. The odd thing was that to everyone else I was Mrs Efficiency, Mrs High-Achiever, Mrs Get-Christmas-Sorted-in-October. Failure was inside.

Then, a dull government organisation offered me work, writing documents. I sailed out of that interview feeling fantastic. Energy flowed through me. I still remember that. God, those documents were boring but they gave me my life back. But I still wasn’t really someone who could call herself a writer, not in public.

The school where I’d taught had lots of kids with dyslexia, and I’d become fascinated. So I did a diploma in teaching pupils with Specific Learning Difficulties. That sparked an interest in the brain – a huge strand of my writing and speaking now – and a chance to be an expert in dyslexia and then literacy in general. I won’t bore you here with the literacy work I was doing, as it’s only relevant to the extent that it led to my first book contracts. To cut the story short, I self-published (badly) some home-learning books, sold the first print run of a thousand, and sent a set to the educational wing of Egmont. By chance, they were about to commission a major home-learning series, called I Can Learn. They asked me to write the whole series, for a glorious fee and my first experience of a nightmare deadline: twelve books in three weeks. Although it was fee-based rather than royalty-based, there have been reprint payments and internet spin-offs so I have been treated well. Also, when I do talks to teenagers now, many of them recognise those books from their childhood.

Anyway, now I could call myself an author. I was published. I was earning. I was valued. My books were in shops. I was reasonably well.

But I wasn’t A Novelist. My second novel was still coming back. I’d had near-misses: a fabulous letter from Collins; a story being short-listed for the Ian St James Awards; several times when the novel got as far as acquisitions meetings. But nearly being published is still failing. I started a third novel. I was full of hope. Sent the first part to an agent, got a lovely reply asking for the rest. (More rules broken: don’t send a novel out before it’s finished, but you know that now.) Went back to it, but didn’t finish it because by chance I read a new children’s novel. I’d been writing for adults and had never thought of writing for kids. Why would I? I wanted to break boundaries with language, not be held back by simplicity. Oh, how wrong that analysis was!

The book I read was Skellig, by David Almond, a beautiful writer with an extraordinary voice. He expresses deep ideas in language which is only simple because it is perfect, not because it’s trying to avoid complexity. He is unselfconscious and his words are crystalline and generous where mine were convoluted and self-indulgent. This was what I wanted to do. I’d been so tangled in prose that I’d forgotten about story. And now I could do both. From reading that one book, I learnt everything that I’d been missing in my failed quest for publication: that writing is about the reader more than the writer.

So I began to write Mondays Are Red. When I’d written about a third of it I became impatient and broke that rule again: I sent it to an agent and two publishers before it was finished. The agent and one publisher wanted to see the rest. I explained to the agent that I hadn’t finished but would do so now, and to the publisher that I had interest from an agent and would be in touch soon. I then wrote furiously and sent it off to the agent. The agent said that she loved it but that she was now ill and had decided she couldn’t take anyone on. (Pause for a scream.) I told the publisher this and sent them the rest of the book. Meanwhile, the second publisher, Hodder, rejected it. (Hold that thought.)

The first editor was very excited but wanted changes. She also suggested that I got an agent. I contacted two agents that day, one by letter because she had no email address and one by email. I included in my covering letters some glowing quotes from the editor. The agent I’d contacted by post phoned the next day and said she wanted to take me on. Just like that. When I opened my emails, I found a reply from the agent I’d emailed, apologising for not contacting me immediately. She was interested. Help! I contacted the first agent, explained and said I needed to know if she definitely wanted to sign me. Yes, she said. So, remarkably, I turned an agent down.

My new agent and I worked on Mondays are Red, and got it to the state we wanted it; but the editor who’d been interested wanted one change too many and my agent advised that we go elsewhere. She didn’t believe further changes were necessary.

Which publisher took Mondays are Red? Hodder, who had rejected it when I’d sent it on my own. Useful things, agents.

Mondays are Red was published in 2002 and I have been very lucky ever since, though it has not always been easy and I’ve had my knockbacks. Authors tend to hide those bad times and you should realise that beneath every apparently successful author’s confident exterior are bruises and scars. But do I wish I hadn’t had the years of failure, of not knowing whether I’d ever be published? No. They stop me taking anything for granted or thinking too highly of myself. They are crucial to who I am now; they are also why I understand what gets published and why some perfectly wonderful writing does not.

Now, I am wholly well. I put that down to having repaired my bruised soul. In the dark days, a clever medical person told me we need heartsong in our lives and that the key to health was finding my heartsong. When he said that, I knew what he meant and where I needed to find it. That’s why I spend time blogging for talented, hard-working, non-delusional writers and why I’m writing this book: because if you have that same need for heartsong, I understand.

Next week, I'll tell you the story of how I learnt about my first publishing deal and why my first novel is dedicated to "Alison". You'll need tissues.

If you'd like to buy the brand new ebook version of that novel, Mondays are Red, please do! It's published on Monday and you can be very sure I'll bring you details then. THANK YOU!

Edited to add: LOOK! A fab video trailer. *dances*

Thursday, 24 November 2011

The Children's Book Tree needs us

Last year I supported a lovely idea from Blackwell's in Edinburgh and apparently the help of all of you blog-readers made a big, big difference. Let's see if we can do even better this year!

What happens is this: on the lovely tree in the shop, staff hang book requests from children who are either vulnerable or have some reason for extra need. Then customers either come into the shop OR PHONE 0131 622 8225 and buy one of the gifts, which then gets wrapped up and given to the child in time for Christmas. This year, the fourth year of the scheme, there are over 300 requests on the tree so we need YOUR help to grant them all and ensure that vulnerable children who have actually asked for a book have their wish come true.

Oh, and Julie Gamble is dressing up as an ELF today! (I hope I didn't make that bit up.)

Requests range from the very specific "I'd love a copy of Nicola Morgan's Fleshmarket", through the slightly less specific "I'd love ANY book by Gillian Philip", to the much more general "I'm a 13-year-old boy and I'd like any exciting book."

Blackwell's are working with Barnardo's, Edinburgh Women's Aid, Edinburgh Young Carers and many of the city's support and foster care units. These groups do terrific work and I absolutely love the idea that one of the things they do is encourage reading amongst the children.

So, DO please either pop in the the shop on South Bridge, Edinburgh, or phone 0131 622 8225 and ask for a selection of requests for you to choose between. Staff will then do everything for you! It's so damn easy.

TEL: 0131 622 8225

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Beware of praise

Praise is very like chocolate:
  • It tastes great at the time.
  • Too much of it is (regrettably) bad for you.
  • It (regrettably) needs to be balanced with the sensible stuff.
  • Once tasted, you want more and more of it.
  • People give it to each other to show love, to bribe them, to make friends, and because giving and receiving are linked.
  • You should sometimes reject it.
  • It has been scientifically proven to be beneficial to mood.
(Pause to go and eat some, just so's I can remember. I call it method-writing.)


So, we all need it. Praise, I mean. But actually, it's not like chocolate because chocolate is Truth Incarnate (except mint flavoured white chocolate, which is pure evil and doesn't deserve to be called chocolate) but some praise is False and Must Be Rejected Forthwith.

Praise from someone who doesn't know what the hell they're talking about is worse than mint flavoured white chocolate. Or those pale ones from Marks & Spencer that have absolutely no chocolate in them at all and make me gag. Oh and M&Ms - I nearly walked out of the cinema when my husband was eating M&Ms. All that vacant crunching and crappy plastic smell and not a hint of genuine cocoa. Am I showing myself up as a chocolate snob? Well, in that case I'm a praise snob too.

You should become a praise snob. If you really want to hone your writing and get published, learn to do two things with praise:
  1. Store it in the cosy bit of your brain to boost you when you have no chocolate.
  2. Analyse it, judge it, assess it, and be HONEST about it (That makes more than two things but I am being generous.) And sometimes, reject it.
Here's my fool-proof guide to assessing Praise That Is Relevant To Getting Published. (Of course, praise about your hair-style, dress sense, new lipstick colour or new car is entirely outwith the remit of this blog, and I would have to charge a fee for such extension of my adjudicatory powers.) 

Essentially, all writing-related praise should be thoroughly discarded (after thanking the kind donor and not revealing that you've been told to ignore them by a crabbit old bat from Scotland) if it emanates from the mouths or keyboards of the following. As individuals these are often perfectly lovely people, but they're not qualified to praise your writing in any kind of practical sense, though they may be accidentally correct:
  • Your parents, grandparents, children - other relatives may very occasionally give acceptable advice.
  • Other unpublished writers, unless they have publishing credentials, in which case listen to them (unless they fall into the blood-relly category).
  • Anyone else without some specific reason to know that about which he speaks.
  • Your friend.
  • Your dog.
What about members of your writing group? Tricky. Be very careful how you regard their praise, well-intentioned though it is. Thing is, you're psychologically, morally and ethically connected, (and you may be actually in their house and drinking their wine and eating their Moroccan chicken). Occasionally your writing group may be right, but you should listen more carefully to their criticism. Treat their praise like the chocolate that it is. Yummy but to be treated with caution.

Look, I KNOW praise is important - I need it too. I'm not saying ignore all praise: I'm saying assess it. I'm saying be honest with yourself. Some praise is fab but some is simply air. Poisonous air at that.

Ask yourself two questions:
  1. Does this person genuinely know what he/she is talking about?
  2. Is this person giving the praise entirely out of the blue and not because you happen to have put him/her on the spot by asking for an "honest opinion"?
I see people being held back from publishing potential by clutching at empty praise and ignoring the much rarer really constructive criticism, which could actually improve their writing and pull them towards genuine success. Of course I love it when people say nice things to me but I grow much more from the negative points - the girl who asked me why I wrote such long chapters, the comments from readers who didn't like a certain ending.

There are people I know who are renowned for being honest in their criticism and those are the ones I work hardest to please because I know they won't say it's good if it's not. 

The worst places are some online communities and forums. You see people going on-line and off-loading about how an agent or editor has rejected them or said something negative and everyone piles in with poor you, and don't worry WE know you're fab, dahling, when they haven't even read the thing that's been rejected. And of course it's lovely and kind and generous but in terms of becoming published it's so detrimental because it fails to encourage the writer to consider whether actually the negative points might have been worth something.

Perhaps I should more constructively say: hold all praise briefly to your heart and then let it go and focus on improving your writing.

[Adapted from a much earlier post. There is also more advice about finding and dealing with quality  feedback in Write to be Published.]

Monday, 21 November 2011

How to be professional

I often exhort aspiring writers to "be professional" and someone recently pointed out that I have never actually explained what that means. Which is not very professional of me as a professional advice-giver.

Writing may be a passion, but if we want to be published it is also a job. We must intend to earn money from it and we must therefore enter our profession and our industry with certain behaviours in mind.

So, when people like me ask writers to be professional in their approach, here's what we want you to think about.
  • Take steps to become informed - we don't have exams, but there is a great deal of knowledge to acquire. So, get clued up. Read blogs and books, make friends with people in the writing world, attend conferences, anything to ensure that you have the best level of knowledge possible before you submit your work. That way, you won't accidentally reveal horrible ignorance.
  • Present your work with decorum. The submission should be presented properly, neatly, carefully, with enormous attention to detail. Otherwise, it's like arriving at an interview in your scruffiest clothes and with egg on your t-shirt.
  • Don't make any of the newbie submission errors - if you did, this would only show that you haven't obeyed my first point. There's masses of advice about submissions in Write to be Published.

  • Show respect to those who know more than you - other published writers, agents and editors who know what they are doing. You're unpublished - this doesn't mean I'm a better writer than you but it does mean you know less than I do about being published, and being published is what you're trying to be.
  • Don't slag off the industry or any individuals in it. Yes, you can have an opinion and yes, you could be right, but be very cautious of who might see your vituperativeness and, more importantly, what this might say about you. You might be wrong, you see, or your newness to the business might mean you've missed an important point.
  • Be prepared to work very hard at making your book as good as it can be - and all the future books you are going to write. Show that you fully understand the work ahead.

  • Be prepared to accept guidance, criticism and editorial direction.

  • When relaxing on Twitter, be aware that you are still in public. You are allowed to have fun - in fact, who wants to work with someone who can't have fun? - but if you behave like a nasty or foolish person, you reveal yourself as a nasty or foolish person, and no one wants to work with a nasty or foolish person. Instead, behave decently to others, offering praise, joining conversations and not being a total divot.
  • Do what you say you're going to do, when you say you're going to do it. If you've said you'll deliver something by December 1st, do it. If you feel you're not going to make it, give lots of warning and explain very simply that you would like to deliver it by [insert date when you are sure you can do it.] Be efficient and strategic, showing that you value deadlines and can manage your working life.
  • Don't be over-friendly too soon. In email or phone conversations with potential agents or publishers, be friendly, of course, but don't over-do it. They are busy. Take your cue from them. Don't gush or flutter or go overboard with the LOLs (in fact, please don't use LOL at all). Read their body language. You are not their new best friend. Wait until you actually are their friend before you get too chatty.
  • Seem in control of your life. Writers can, like anyone, be very disorganised and can have enormously distracting things happening in their lives. The art is to give the impression - always - that despite any of this you can still do your work. Writers often need to continue writing when children are ill or elderly parents being demanding or many domestic crises are going on. No one else can do your writing for you and you have to look as though you know this and can rise above everything. You need to show this in your off-duty behaviour on Twitter, Facebook or your blog, as well.

  • Always wear a suit when preparing your submission. If you wear pyjamas, they will see. :)
You may wonder how exactly you are supposed to demonstrate all these things. Professionalism is something which you don't always have to show explicitly - if you believe all these points, you will follow them implicitly and your professionalism will shine through your behaviour, the calm smile on your face, and the strength of your handshake.

The two most likely places for you to demonstrate professionalism are a) in your submission and b) on your blog, if you have one. Don't ask an agent or editor to go and look at your blog but do include the address subtly in your letter/email. Then they can visit if they wish and they most likely will if they are interested in you. There, they need to see you behaving like a real writer-in-the-making, someone who is all set to be a wonderful, professional author.That doesn't mean you have to be po-faced or that you can't let your hair down occasionally, but it does mean that your blog must be well-written and worth reading for all the right reasons.

Once you've made your mark, you can cross some lines and mess around if you wish. because it is possible to be professional AND fun-loving and highly creative. Professionalism is just a suit we wear.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Use bookshops this Christmas

Bookshops are far more important than some people seem to think. Writers and readers need real bookshops and the passionate, expert booksellers who work in them. Amazon are expert sellers and, indeed, quite passionate about selling, but they are not passionate, expert booksellers. I don't object to the fact that they sell lots of books, of course - I simply object to how little they care what they sell as long as they sell lots of it. Beans or books, they don't mind. Mind you, there's also my amusing story of Sainsbury's and the Great Bacon vs Books Contest, which elicited and interesting and, at first, positive-sounding contact from the head of "entertainment" and a cordial email conversation between me and the head of book-buying.  (I will report on the result of this conversation soon, but unless I get a reply to the requested suggestion I put together months ago, it may be a short and unhappy report. Come on, Sainsbury's - you can do it!)

Anyway, this post is not about Amazon or Sainsbury's but about bookshops, and passionate and expert booksellers. I've met them in Waterstone's, Blackwells, Foyle's and loads of independents. My pledge this Christmas is to buy books for as many people as possible and to buy them from bookshops. Physical ones. Proper ones. Not supermarkets. In Edinburgh, we have lots of choice and they are all excellent: Waterstone's (several branches), Blackwells and The Edinburgh Bookshop.

AND LOOK - you can nominate your favourite in the Telegraph Small Shops Awards.

If you're a writer or you know a writer who lives within travelling distance of Edinburgh or Oxford, here's something for you. Perhaps you could suggest that the loved one in your life buys it for you? Do pass this info on, please!

BLACKWELLs OXFORD WRITE TO BE PUBLISHED - Books + 2-hour event on Thurs January 19th, 7-9pm, with refreshments - £25
Blackwells approached me with the fab suggestion of a Christmas present package for writers. The package consists of a copy of Write to be Published, the ebook* of Write a Great Synopsis - An Expert Guide, and a ticket for an in depth two-hour evening event with me, in which I'll cover all sorts of aspects of hooking a publisher, and you'll be able to ask questions.
*This will be emailed directly from me on publication.
Interested? Either call in at the store in Oxford or phone them on 01865 792792. This is only newly launched so you could be the first!

THE EDINBURGH BOOKSHOP - Books + 1.5 hour event on Saturday January 28th, 2-3.30pm - £15
And the Edinburgh Bookshop is offering a similar package. The package consists of a prettily gift-wrapped copy of Write to be Published, the ebook* of Write a Great Synopsis, and a ticket for a 1.5 hour afternoon event with me, covering as much as I can and giving time for questions.
*This will be emailed directly from me on publication.
Interested? Call in at the shop on Bruntsfield Place at Holy Corner or phone 0131 447 1917

Both events are on my Facebook page - do sign up there so that you hear about other events and news. It's a good place to send me a message, too.

Support bookshops; support authors. Hooray!

Would you like to plug your favourite bookshops? Add them to the comments.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Crabbit's Tips for Writers - 3: On Approaching Agents and Publishers

Here is the third in my series of free CRABBIT's TIPS FOR WRITERS. This one is Crabbit's Tips for Approaching Agents and Publishers. For the ones I've already published, see the label "Crabbit's Tips for Writers" by scrolling down the righthand sidebar. Or, for the full list see the first post here.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Synopsis Spotlight - Kip Cusack and the Spy Formation League

I've chosen this synopsis by Louise Kelly because it nicely shows how you can (and should) convey the tone and voice of your story in your synopsis. Louise's worries whether, although the comic tone fits the novel, some vocab/phrasing doesn't match age range. Also, she introduces a new character right at end. Is this odd/wrong, she asks?

It's a novel for children of 9-11 (I'm guessing.)

Kip Cusack and the Spy Formation League: Synopsis

KIP CUSAK AND THE SPY FORMATION LEAGUE is the first adventure of 12-year-old KIP whose world flips upside down when he finds that his ‘Support For Learning’ sessions are in fact a cover for a spy training network – the Spy Formation League. Not content with making him grapple with his spelling, life now seems to expect him to grapple with villains too!

Kip arrives home one day to find the contents of his GRANDA TOM’s potting shed being hurled into the back lane, and Granda Tom, locked inside the garden, denying that the clearly audible thumps and threats are any cause for alarm. And, why should they be? After all, Kip’s mum, ROSA, makes sure their life in the dull seaside town of Brawhaven is as humdrum as possible. But what Granda Tom knows, and what Kip is about to find out, is that all this is about to change … completely.

When Kip meets IRWIN, his new SFL [explain] teacher, it’s clear she’s got more on her mind than trying to deal with dyslexia. She’s there, she claims, to mould the group class (Kip and his two SFL classmates GUTHRIE and JAMEEL) [we don't hear their names again, so no need to include them here] into a top spy ring - oh, and earn her own stripes as a Spy Master while she’s at it. At first, Kip is sure it’s all some elaborate joke but when eccentric Spy Master SARAH BELLA contacts the SFL with some astonishing news his feet don’t have time to touch the ground before he’s catapulted into the SFL’s latest case: the plot by world-dominating seed research company, SPORE, to control the earth’s food supplies. As Kip and his friends discover, SPORE will stop at nothing, even kidnapping top seed scientist,Taru.[I've put this here and deleted next para. Neater.]

Sarah-Bella reports her fears that the Super-Yield rice seeds, unleashed by (supposed) seed research company, SPORE, are linked to some reported episodes of brain-washing. Then, when Kip and his co-spies contact the Global Seedbank – home of the world’s seed reserves – to check out the Super-Yield strain, they find that the vital seeds have gone missing. And what’s worse so has Seedbank scientist TARU. It is clear that SPORE will stop at nothing to make sure they can keep control of their newly developed rice strain and the wealth, and power over the world’s food supplies, that it will bring them.

Kip’s first botched attempt to stalk the seed-pirates ends up with his incarceration in the Seedbanks [need apostrophe] freezers. But he has been practicing [UK spelling: practising] some of his spy skills – honest – and uses them to escape as well as to uncover the identity of one of SPORE’s top operatives, POULSON. What’s more, his adventure alerts Granda Tom to his grandson’s new identity – and prompts the revelation that he too was part of the SFL in his youth. With Granda Tom on board, the race to uncover the details of SPORE’s plans and rescue Taru careers onwards apace [don't like that phrase] but also brings new dangers. Sensing that the SFL are closing in, Poulson and top seed-pirate, PATTERSON, decide they need to take drastic action and it is not long before Kip finds himself kidnapped and on a boat to an island prison.

Overhearing plans that SPORE are on the verge of completing their stranglehold on the seed supplies, and that Taru is also hidden somewhere on the island, Kip tries to signal for help… but when none arrives Kip knows he has no choice but to take on Patterson and Poulson on alone. Once again, however, he is overpowered and thrown to sea – with a lump of concrete tied to his leg for company – and left for drowned.

With only seconds to spare, however, one of his SFL companions reaches him - it seems that he had got a signal through – and plucks him from a watery grave. Kip’s tale, and the information they decipher from a coded message that he’s also managed to capture, show that there is no time to lose. Not only are the only [clunky repetition of only]viable rice seeds about to be spirited away, but Taru will drown if they don’t get to him before the tide changes.

Kip, the SFL and Granda Tom speed back over to the island but there is one more shock in store. Not only are Patterson and Poulson intent on absconding with their haul [cliché and clunky!] but Patterson intends to remotely detonate a device which will blow-up the Seedbank and everybody in it as soon as they are in open sea with their cargo. [That whole sentence could be: their enemies plan to blow up the island and disappear with the seeds.]

Gone are any traces of Kip’s former insecurities and indecision [first we've heard of this!]and now, in the face of such malice, he does not hesitate. Giving chase to Poulson and Patterson, he masterminds the cornering [clunky] of their escaping boat, dives across to them from his moving vessel, disables their engine and brings them to a halt. Then, with artful persuasion he extracts the over-ride code from Poulson and averts the detonation of the Seedbank.

[I have no idea what this next bit actually means!] If only escaping the wrath of his mum was that easy.

Maybe now Kip can begin to grasp just what it might feel like to have the quiet confidence of his eccentric dad FERGAL. And maybe his adventure has given him a taste of what his mum has been trying to protect him from all his life.
And he thinks he might be ready to taste more.

OK, here's what I think.
Essentially, it's a great synopsis, Louise! Lively, fast-paced, age-appropriate and credible. I disagree that there's a problem with vocab not matching the age-range. OK, so I perhaps know which phrases you're thinking of but this is the synopsis and not the actual story and it's very marginal. However, your concern about the sudden appearance of a new character at the end is valid. It definnitely feels wrong, not least because I have absolutely no idea how he fits. So, essentially, you've messed up the ending of your synopsis.

One important point: you mention the scene with Granda Tom's potting shed as though it's important. Actually, we never discover the point of that, so I think you've put it in for all the wrong reasons: it sounds quirky, fun and scene-setting; but it's not ultimately important or interesting.

I've also cut out some unnecessary words and details and tried to tighten your prose. That does give you room to add back in some action phrases to spark it up again but do so in a snappier way than the bits I chopped out.

Any other comments, anyone? Essentially this is how a synopsis should be just before the final revisions of it before sending out. You could get this perfect in another fifteen minutes of polishing.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Crabbit's Tips for Writers - 2: On Getting Published

Here is the second in my series of free CRABBIT's TIPS FOR WRITERS. This one is Crabbit's Tips for Getting Published. Last week's was Crabbit's Tips for Writing Fiction. For that and the full list, see that post. Next week will be the one on approaching agents and publishers and I will be publishing one every week or more often until they are all up or I've run out of energy. This might happen.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Mondays are Red is coming

Please accept my apologies for hijacking my own blog to plug something of my own. Normal advice will be resumed soon.

Recently, my agent and I were delighted to get the rights back to my first novel, Mondays are Red, and now we are publishing it again as an ebook. Very exciting for me!

Here is the gorgeous new cover designed by Andrew Brown of Design for Writers. I love it. It's fiery and red and sinister and rich. What do you think?

One lovely thing about doing this new edition is that I have the freedom to add some extra material, so I have written these extra bits:
  • A new intro.
  • Some fascinating facts about synaesthesia and links to interesting sites.
  • An analysis of some things I've changed for the new edition, and why. As writers, you might find this interesting because what I've found is that in the ten years since I wrote the book, certain writing fashions have altered. Some words have changed and some writing conventions, too. So, as an end-piece, I've written about what I changed and why and what I haven't changed and why. I've changed very little, though in many ways I'd have liked to change more. Never satisfied.
  • Where I got the idea.
  • There are some pieces of creative writing by some school pupils from St Laurence School, Wiltshire, who've been studying Mondays are Red. Loads of schools use it, for reasons which will be obvious to you if you've read the book. You will be amazed by the boys' work. I will be doing some projects with other interested schools and if you know any English teachers, do let them know.
Would you like a free copy of the pdf or Kindle version? Well, on Friday* I will be introducing my annual signed-books-for-Christmas offer, which includes a free copy of Mondays are Red every book ordered. And I'll be doing be some giveaways during December. (*Friday is a very special day for me for another reason, too, as some of you know!)

Would you like to be involved in the blog tour? There are a few spaces left. If you have a relevant blog and think you can appeal to the right readers - writers, teenagers and all YA book-lovers - let Becky Hearne know. (

Do you know a secondary school librarian who would like a free copy? Any school librarian who contacts me at before December 1st can have a copy.

Have you already read it? Want to say something I could quote in press releases? DO!

Later on this blog I'll be looking at some of the weird language of Mondays are Red and I'll be showing you all the rules I broke for this debut novel. Do as I say, not as I do... *frowns*

What will it cost? I think it will be £1.99 until mid January and then go up to £2.99.

When is it published? Monday 28th November is the plan. A bright red Monday.

I am very excited! I hope you don't mind my plugging it here but I kind of hope I've earned the right :)

Friday, 4 November 2011

Synopsis Spotlight - Ghost in the Machine

Please help blog-reader Fiona Maddock with her synopsis problem.
Fiona says: "Please find attached my synopsis for my debut novel, Ghost In The Machine, 86,000 words.  The genre is techno-thriller and it's for adults. I hope it appeals to men and women, but especially women, because I like reading stuff like this, so I've written my own, because girls like gadgets too.

What's wrong with it? *Sigh* It doesn't seem to be interesting enough to elicit a full manuscript request. One problem could be that I haven't got the genre quite right. Another problem could be that the ending needs to be stronger, and if I used another 4,000 words to do that, I would have a novel at a nicely rounded length of 90,000.

I'd describe it as 'techno-thriller with romance'.  The thing is, it's not 'blokey sci-fi' and it's not quite women's commercial fiction (or is it...?) I don't know.  I'm having a horrible bout of critical crisis at the moment so I've stopped subbing until I feel better.
[NM intervenes: Fiona, you need to remove your double character spaces before each sentence. Regardless of personal preference, it's really important only to have one nowadays or you'll cock up all the eformatting.]

I've added some notes as I go along. Bits crossed out indicate details that can disappear. Obviously, once those details are omitted you'll sometimes need to clarify things differently.

The year is 2020.  In a biomedical private clinic in the UK, divorcĂ©e Tess Brookes emerges as a nineteen-year-old babe, thanks to a bioengineering procedure called ‘Regeneration’.  Her new life will tick all the boxes: exciting, glamorous and pimped by technology, gadgets, and apps.  Tess is ecstatic over her fabulous looks and the promise of an A-lister lifestyle.
The cybernetics division of the Bio Multinational corporation, {omit comma] employs Lance Tully, brilliant robotics engineer, to build a new concept in humanoid robots for the Hungry Horse Burger Company.  He pushes Artificial Intelligence (AI) to the limit but the company wants sentience, using Artificial Consciousness (AC), which is still theoretical.  Pressured by the bean counters and marketing guys, Lance plunders the templates of Tess, the ‘regen’ client, to model the body and the pseudo-human ‘machine mind’ of the robot, Pandora. 
Uber-cool Pandora is Lance’s masterpiece.  Never mind that humans and robots are all mixed up, the company is delighted, and Lance is riding high. [add: until]  Pandora makes friends with the backup prototype, Dilip, and is distressed when the company sends Dilip away, so she escapes from the lab to find him.
A few days later, Tess returns from a business trip to Paris, and her colleague and best friend Jools is really pissed off with her; she thinks Tess has gone mad.  Tess is alarmed and  confused.She goes to get her car but unknown to her, Pandora has already taken it.[be more general about that stuff - show what's happening without giving all examples.]  She calls a taxi to take her home, and reports her car stolen.  At home, life has changed.  Tess finds a replica of herself in her hallway.  Tess challenges the stranger but only gets crazy answers from her.  The police arrive to investigate the complaint of the stolen car, but they see it in Tess’ driveway, where Pandora parked it, and they think Tess is psychotic.  It doesn’t help that Pandora goes into static ‘default’ mode and makes Tess look like a fool.
Rob Shaw, eCommerce lawyer, a client of Tess’ firm, is calling Tess on his Blackberry.  It’s their first date but she’s stood him up.  Tess had clean forgotten, but goes to meet him and asks him to help her unravel the mystery of her doppelganger.  [All the following paragraphs are more outline than synopsis. See my post from yesterday.]
Shaw threatens the Chairman with a writ when he discovers Bio Multinational has stolen Tess’ brain patterns.  The Chairman tricks Rob into a meeting and kidnaps him. 
Tess and Rob have fallen in love, and she tries to rescue him.  She finds him in the biomedical facility, but before they can escape, the staff catch them and lock her up too.
Lance must recover the robot or his career is finished.  When he does, the company orders him to decommission her.  Pandora overhears the command and she blacks out from panic.  While the programming team tries to revive the robot, Lance receives an SOS text on his iPhone; it’s from Tess.  Lance smuggles Pandora out of the lab, and they rescue Tess, but Rob is no longer there.  Tess is forced to flee without him.
Lance needs Tess’ brain updates for Pandora, and he persuades Tess to shelter the robot, now in jeopardy if the company discovers her.  In return, Lance pledges to help Tess find Rob.  Tess doesn’t trust the robot but agrees to do it, and she and the robot discover they need to co-operate in order to survive.  Lance fancies Tess and attempts to win her while Rob is out of the way.  Then Tess discovers that Rob has provided the human template for Dilip.  Lance has been holding out on her and Tess feels betrayed and is furious.
Unexpectedly, Rob turns up at his office unharmed.  Tess is desperate to be reunited with him, but he has no memory whatsoever of her, and she is devastated.    
Tess and Pandora conspire to trick Lance so the robot can steal a copy of Rob’s most recent brain template, which Tess hopes to use to restore Rob’s memory.  Tess’ own trusted bioengineer, Fraser Healy, succeeds.  Rob recognises her once more and the pair is reunited.
Lance programmes Pandora as his robot lover and she struggles to understand his human reactions with her hybrid mind. [Doesn't seem like a resolution.]

My comments: this reads too much like an outline, listing all the things that happen - which is useful in lots of ways but not quite a synopsis. When you do this you lose the atmosphere of the novel. It tells me that yes, you've put the plot togther, but it doesn't feel elegant enough. It focuses too much on details rather than giving an overal sense of the story. By cutting out lots of details and telling it in a more story-telling way, you'd make it read better. So, what we're looking for is more style and motivation, more generality and less detail. More emotion, more motivation, more interaction between characters. I think you'll find my post of Monday helpful.

And, by the way, I wouldn't normally expect to enjoy a techno thriller (or however you'd describe this kind of sci-fi?) this is but I thought this sounded intriguing!

What does everyone else think?

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Crabbit's Tips for Writers - 1: On Writing Fiction

In my absurd desire to pander to your every whim and propel you towards publication at no financial gain to myself, I have written a series of free guidelines for writers, called CRABBIT’S FREE TIPS FOR WRITERS.

This series will consist of:
And maybe more!

I will publish them one at a time, starting today, both on the blog and as a downloadable document. Today's download is here, where you can print it or email it to anyone, or you can read it below.(I sometimes have trouble with these download links so please tell me if this one doesn't work.)

Remember: I explain and expand on all of this advice elsewhere, elegantly and succinctly in Write to be Published and with gayer abandon here on the blog. Please spread the word about this advice - too many agents and publishers are still receiving crap submissions. They are a bit cross with me that I haven't managed to reach more people. Also, some of them keep sending me examples of eel vomitish submissions and I have had enough. Enough, I say.


1. Never break a rule you don’t understand. When you fully understand it, you can do what the hell you like with it.

2. Here are the main things you must control in a novel (and often in a short story): structure/shape, character and character development, dialogue, point(s) of view, voice, pace, tension/suspense, believability, sentence rhythm, grammar and syntax (which includes punctuation), subject-matter and themes. All should be appropriate to genre.

3. Therefore, know your genre. Read, critically. Note that some genres are more tolerant of certain errors – and less tolerant of others.

4. Think carefully about what a reader needs to know and when. Don’t over-explain.

5. From the start, we need to know: who has the problem, what is the problem and why should we care?

6. Trail hints of future conflict or tension early in the book.

7. Give as little back-story as possible at the beginning. Drip-feed it and only as needed.

8. You do not have to start each scene at the beginning. Leap into the middle and leave before the reader’s had enough.

9. Beware saggy middles. Create an enormous setback in the middle and make us CARE. Spread obstacles judiciously, for greatest impact.

10. Know far more about your characters than you will ever need to say.

11. Manipulate pace by treating chapters like breaths. If you end a chapter at the end of an episode, you finish on out-breath – relaxing, complete. If you end midway through an episode, you finish on in-breath – tense, exciting, desperate for air. Control where your readers rest.

12. If in doubt, leave it out – sub-plot, character, scene, paragraph, sentence, word.

13. Avoid everything in my List of Ingredients of Poor Writing.(Coming soonish.)

14. Read your work aloud, imagining that your audience consists of appropriately-aged reluctant readers with ADHD. If you hear them fidgeting, delete or rewrite.

15. Read it aloud again, noticing rhythm and clunky sentences.

16. Read it aloud again, this time as though you have a rapt and attentive audience. Listen to the applause: you deserve it. But don’t let it go to your head. Someone didn’t like it but was too polite to say so. Trust me.

17. Of course your mother thinks your book is utterly fabulous. She’s your mother.


Tuesday, 1 November 2011


Two pitches for your perusal today.

First, Josiphine Noire would like our help with her pitch for Captive of the Sea. It is a YA historical novel set during the decline of the Viking age. Josiphine says, "Right now I feel like my pitch is...stale. I can't think of a different word for it. If I saw it on the shelf the chances that I would read it are slim at best."

Readers, can you help?!
Caciana was stolen from her homeland, Spain, when she was too young to even remember it. Now she spends her days mostly forgotten with the sheep in the field, which is why she is the only one who survives when the Vikings come raiding. She tries to convince herself that being a slave in Norway won’t be any different than being a slave in Ireland. But she hadn’t counted on…

…Ivor, the handsome young Viking who spared her life, but doesn’t quite know why.

Each has their own journey. When the journeys undeniably become one, neither expects the outcome, or the lessons learned on the way.
My comments: love the title. Several powerful elements: Vikings, slaves, Spain, raiding. But what happens? The last para is hopelessly vague. There is no room for vagueness in a pitch. How old is Caciana, btw? Is she gorgeous? Is she cruelly treated? Brave? I want a strong image of Caciana. What does the story consist of other than the actual capture, vague love and personal journeys? What is the special element of this story, its hook, the thing that's going to make us think MUST READ? So, Josiphine, I think you're right: it sounds weak, but I think that comes down to the words you've chosen. I'm sure you've got a story full of drama and emotion but you just haven't managed to convey it.

My suggestion: brainstorm some words and phrases that your book consists of or conjures up, everything you can think of. Then identify the 15 most compelling words or images. And weave as many of them as possible into your pitch.

Second, Elpi Pamiadaki sent me this, which she used in a query letter for her Paranormal Romance novella, Queen of Souls. Elpi says, "Queen of Souls is a 25,000 word story and is aimed at the Nocturne Cravings imprint of Harlequin. The writing guidelines request a very sexy and sensual read, so the readership would be young women over 18." 
Hades, the god of the aetherworld, was forced to betray his wife, Persephone, to save his kingdom. Wracked by guilt and misery, and in the guise of Aiden Black, he has waited two thousand years to find her again.

Stripped of all her powers and dragged to the future, Persephone remembers nothing of her past as a powerful goddess and Queen of Souls, nor of the dark stranger to whom she is desperately and mysteriously attracted.

Knowing that only Persephone can save his kingdom, Aiden must re-awaken her powers, not realising that this will begin a chain of events, orchestrated perfectly to destroy them and the aetherworld.

Can Persephone learn to love and to trust again? And can her feelings save Aiden from a plot hatched eons ago of truly Olympian depth and cunning?
My comments:
Elpi, I'm assuming the guidelines also say Harlequin will accept novellas? Leaving that aside, there are some really good elements to this pitch but I feel it tails off. The third and fourth paragraphs are weaker: "not realising that this will begin a chain of events, orchestrated perfectly...". What sort of events, orchestrated by whom? Can you find a phrase that is more specific, more dramatic, more emotional? Also, who is the main character? Are we to sympathise more with P or H? And do we want her to love and trust again when H betrayed her so roundly? Rather than asking whether she can learn to love and trust, tell us what her dilemma is from her pov. We need a couple of neat epithets to give us a sense of who we should identify with and why. Having said that, I think the premise of the first two paragraphs is a great one. It could be the only paranormal romance I'd want to read!

But I'd say it doesn't sound very sexy or sensual - since that's required, can you add it to the pitch?

Now, dear blog readers: over to you. Comment away, constructively, please.