Monday, 30 January 2012

Are authors supposed to notice their own errors?

What if your book has a few clunky sentences and/or punctuation errors when you send the sample chapters to a publisher or agent? Does this matter? After all, isn't that what publishers' editors are for?

Yes, it does matter. And your book may well never reach a publisher's editor if your manuscript, covering letter and synopsis have the marks of a writer who doesn't have full control of language. Of course, a typo is a typo and not a sign of bad writing. I'm prone to typos in blog posts and emails myself. But lots of typos in what is supposed to be your best effort at writing are the sign of a writer who doesn't know or care.

If you doubt me, read this agent's answer to the question. And it's Query Shark and Query Shark KNOWS.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Pitch your pitch - it's back!

Would you like the readers of this blog (and me) to help shape your pitch, that tricky paragraph that goes in the covering letter and hooks you a fabulous agent and/or publisher? Well, we've done that on this blog before and we're going to do it again. Hooray!

Here's what to do:
A. First read some of the previous posts about pitches and hooks. For example, this one and this one.
B. Second, read the post about 25-word pitches here, and at least some of the 117 comments!
C. Then, if you'd like us to help with your pitch, do this:
  1. Email your pitch paragraph to me at, in the body of the email, not as an attachment.
  2. In the email, tell me whether you want your real name used, and tell me what genre the book is and, if for children, the age range.
  3. Make sure that your pitch is as good as you can make it, following these guidelines:
  • every word must count
  • it needs must-read factor, in keeping with the genre
  • it should focus on the main character (if fiction)
  • it must be specific and not general - eg not "it's about redemption" but "it's about an angry young man who...because...and then"
  • it must indicate how the story ends or at least where the journey is heading
  • it should not contain rhetorical questions
  • the tone must reflect the tone of the book
  • it must be objective and therefore contain no praisey bits. You cannot say "beautifully written", for example. Though you can say "fast-moving".
  • your target word count is as close to 160 words as possible
  • in essence, your aim is to make someone who would normally read and love this genre be desperate to read this book :)) 
Hook 'em with a pointy hook!

I usually get a lot of people sending pitches in for this so I can't promise to include yours. What I do promise is that I will not set you up for failure, in the sense that I won't put it on the blog if I think you are going to get mostly negative feedback. My blog readers are an incredibly supportive and sensible bunch and feedback has been of high quality but sometimes I feel that a pitch isn't really ready for public scrutiny and then I won't put it up. But if I don't put yours up it might be just that I didn't have space! I also try to vary the genres.

Meanwhile, today I am wearing my red pointy boots at an award ceremony that Wasted is shortlisted for. It's called the RED award and personally I think I should win simply because the cover is red. And so are my boots. What more does anyone want??

Monday, 23 January 2012

Crabbit's Tips for Writers - 5: Ingredients of Poor Writing

You may remember that last year I started a set of Crabbit's Tips for Writers. Here's No 5. To find the others, go to the list of labels on the right (scroll down) and choose Crabbit's Tips for Writers. You can also go here to download the pretty pdf and print it out, if you so wish.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Write a Great Synopsis launches at a crazy intro price! Wot? AND Tweet Right??

Announcing the launch of Write a Great Synopsis - hooray! All your troubles are at an end. Well, the ones relating to writing synopses, anyway. And that's quite enough to be going on with.

To celebrate, I have a crazy price promotion until the end of January: Write a GREAT Synopsis and Tweet Right - The Sensible Person's Guide to Twitter will each be stupid cheap on Amazon. I'm aiming for 99p, but VAT and currency fluctuations, along with Amazon's naughtiness, are making that hard to acheive. So, forgive me if it's £1 or even - gasps - £1.02.

But only till the end of January. So hurry! Unfortunately, I can't do the same price promotion on other platforms, and have less control over the price, but I'm going to try to set it low on Lulu, which feeds ibookstore etc, but it can't be lower than Amazon. (*growls*)

Here are the links to the books on Amazon UK:

Write a Great Synopsis on Amazon UK - for Kindle AND laptops/ipads/etc if you download the FREE Kindle app

Tweet Right on Amazon UK - as above.

For non-UK purchases, please see the site and do a search for the titles.

Spread the word - Crabbit has gone mad. And remember: it's January only. Imagine how weird it would be for a book on synopsis-writing to be near the top of the charts :) Together, we can do it.

And tonight on Twitter there will be fizz, as soon as I'm back from Oxford, where I had mucho fun with some workshoppers and a whole load of imaginary characters. Join us!

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

All writers should self-publish

No, I haven't gone entirely mad. Or even, I venture to say, a tiny bit mad. Nor have I started to believe the self-publishing-is-the-answer-to-everything and the publishing-is-completely-broken rubbish.

I am, as you know, a published (more than 90 books) author who has also ventured into self-publishing, and who is enjoying it. I dare even say succeeding, though John Locke need not watch his back. But my steps into self-publishing do not mean turning up my nose at traditional (hate that word but... ) publishing: yes, I still want to be published by publishers. Pretty please. And, especially, to have my books in proper bookshops.

And I believe all writers should self-publish.

I'll rephrase that: I believe that all writers should self-publish something. (Unless they have worked in a publishing company themselves.) 

Why? Because I think that self-publishing teaches us a great deal, if we choose to listen, and I believe it teaches us a great deal about how difficult publishing is.

Actually, no: publishing is easy. Anyone can publish a book and publishing ebooks is child's play. (Literally; I heard of a teacher whose primary pupils publish their own work to Kindle, actually doing the publishing bit themselves.)

Yes, publishing is easy but selling is hard. And it's the selling of our books that causes published writers so many gripes about their publishers.

That's why I think we'd all benefit (and our future publishers would benefit) if we tried to publish something ourselves. Our increased understanding would both make us able to contribute better to the marketing process with our future publisher and more appreciative of why disappointments do happen. Also, we'd be more realistic and professional-sounding in our pitches. No longer would we believe that our lovely book was certain to sell tens of thousands if it really wasn't. Our ideas, our pitches, our writing, our consideration of our readers - all these would, I venture, be tighter, more professional, more likely to be realised.

I'm quite prepared to admit that what I've learnt through publishing Tweet Right, Mondays are Red and Write a Great Synopsis leads me to be a little less harsh on publishers who have made mistakes, either in their decisions to publish (or not publish) or in their failure to sell as many copies of an author's books as they should.

It's harder than we think to reach those readers. Only when we've tried to sell something in a market where there are hundreds of thousands of competitors can we truly know how hard it is. We become, I think, more connected to the reader who buys our book, buys it from us, not from some middleman.

So, yes, self-publish in order to learn what it's like on the other side.

But does this mean I'm letting publishers off the hook? Oh, no! I'd also like every publisher to try to write a book. I'd like them to know what it feels like to put our precious oeuvre, perhaps the work of two years or more, into someone else's hands and watch it sink and vanish, as most do. I'd like them to deal with negative reviews and poor sales, when we only have that one book to earn our crust with that year. Don't get me wrong: I love what I do and I choose to do it, and the same can be said for almost all of us. I do NOT want you to get the violins out. Nevertheless, it's harder than most publishers think. It's more emotional, more raw, more distracting, more damn gutwrenching

And both writers and publishers should understand a little more of the challenges of the other.

Monday, 16 January 2012

The Big Write a GREAT Synopsis Competition!

At last, Write a Great Synopsis – An Expert Guide is available. (Henceforward, WAGSynopsis, or if you’re feeling cheeky, WAGS.)

Win a synopsis critique and advice from the Crabbit Old Bat herself! Surrounding publication on January 20th of Write a Great Synopsis – An Expert Guide, I will be visiting many blogs for a guest post, review or interview.  If you’d like the chance of winning help with your synopsis, simply leave a relevant comment on any of the guest posts - including any WAGS-related posts on my blog, beginning with this one. It could be a deep and meaningful comment or a plea to the gods of fortune to pick you! One comment per post – but comment on each post if you wish. On February 15th, each blog host will send me the names of valid commenters and I will do a random selection, using a random number generator and my sparkly fairy dust spreader.

1st Prize: a synopsis critique from me; your choice of one of my books*, subject to availability, signed; a sought-after (only 6 in the world!) Write to be Published mug; a crabbit bag; and a pile of postcards.
2nd Prize: a synopsis critique; a signed book (mine); postcards.
3rd Prize: a synopsis critique; postcards.

(* For clarity: an ebook can't be signed and therefore WAGS is not one of the books you can win. It's so cheap that I don't feel guilty suggesting you should buy it!)

The list of blogs I’m visiting will appear one by one on the panel on the right. Do go and read them – all the bloggers are great supporters of writers. Comment on as many as you have time for.

Here is the lovely short book trailer, made by my film-maker daughter just before she headed off to make documentaries in South Africa for six months.

Comment away!

Friday, 13 January 2012

How much promotion is too much?

I was asked this on Twitter the other day. The reason the conversation arose is that a successful writer has been bugging the pants off people on Twitter. (Please, if you know who I mean, do NOT identify him on my blog. I have no desire at all to embarrass the poor chap. Besides, I hear there are more than one bug... Erm, person who bugs.)

Poor chap? Hang on! His book has done fantabulously well, so surely his bugging-people-on-Twitter strategy worked? Why should he feel any embarrassment?

Let me tackle this, before I move on to talk about how much promotion is too much.
First, we have no idea at all whether the bugging strategy worked. We have no idea if it was even a strategy. For all I know, he was just being over-excited. Importantly, we also have no idea whether he'd have sold as many or even more if he hadn't bugged pants off people.

BUT he has sold stacks and stacks of copies, so he really shouldn't care if he's annoyed anyone, should he?

Well, here I come to my second point: it depends whether he (or any writer who crosses invisible lines) minds what people think. And that is entirely up to the individual; everyone's skin is of a different thickness. So, I will not say he or anyone "shouldn't" have crossed the lines he crossed. I will not say he should be embarrassed.

But I would be.

And this is at least part of my main point, moving on to the wider question. "How much promotion is too much" depends both on you, the writer, and on you, the reader.

Everything is a judgement call. Every blog post, every tweet, every Facebook status update, every email to a festival organiser pitching an event. Every time you tell a personal friend about your latest short-listing, every time you say "me" or "my book", every video trailer, every pile of postcards you order from Vistaprint. Every quote you add to your email signature; every new review you put on your website. All of it, every single time, is a judgement call.

But how do we make that judgement? Are there any objective measures? What things turn people off? Well, probably not exactly objective but there seem to be some general lines that a decent number of people would agree on. Let me tell you what my own guidelines are. They are the lines which I try not to cross and the crossing of which by others bugs the pants off me, to the extent that I'm highly unlikely to buy their books or want to help them in any way. (Like anyone, I may occasionally get over-excited and accidentally put my toe over a line - I would then try to pull it back immediately.) They are the guidelines which I sense many others follow and approve. You don't have to follow these guidelines  - you have to find what's comfortable for you.

So, here are my guidelines:

  1. Give far more than you ask for. In other words, if your blog/FB timeline/Twitter feed is mostly giving people information, support, or entertainment without asking anything, it is fine if you sometimes plug your own work or ask your readers, colleagues and friends or "followers" to consider doing something for you. (Bearing in mind other points below.)
  2. I've heard a 90% rule given - 90% of your online activity should be giving, and then you can use the other 10% for blagging. (Bearing in mind the points below.) I've also heard a 60/40 rule from marketing professionals, but I definitely prefer the 90/10 one, which is for mere humans.
  3. Be generous in your praise of others. Be nice. And if you can't be nice, be silent.
  4. When you ask people to do something (such as read a blog post or click a link or buy your book) do so generally and openly, not individually or privately. (See below.) If you make it general and don't address your message to anyone specific, you make it easy for people to ignore it, which is as it should be.
  1. Ask a stranger or slight acquaintance to do ANYTHING for you. (This is where complaints came in.) Not even the smallest thing. Not even to retweet your tweet. So, on Twitter, never send a DM (private message) to someone who is not genuinely a good friend to ask them to do even the smallest thing. Even to do something you think is fun. (Someone said, "But surely you wouldn't mind if I DM'd you to ask you to do something you'd enjoy?" Only I can be the judge of what I would enjoy. You don't know me, so don't assume.)
  2. (Don't) Forget that no one loves your book as much as you do.
  3. (Don't) Forget that there are eleventy million other books for people to buy.
  4. (Don't) Assume that all your friends will buy your book. They can't all afford to and they can't afford to buy all their friends' books, especially if they are writers, because writers have many friends who are writers.
  5. (Don't) Ask people to review your book, except as a very general and light request. I'm cautious about doing this at all, as I think it can sound needy, but I will occasionally in a very careful and tentative way. Also, again very occasionally, if someone privately tells me they absolutely loved one of my books, I might cautiously ask if they might possibly have time to write a quick recommendation on Amazon (or something) but I would also make it very clear that I absolutely wouldn't mind if they didn't. I will make it easy for them not to.
I think it all boils down to three things:
  1. Don't do what you don't like others to do.
  2. Give far more than you expect to receive.
  3. Never ask even a tiny favour of someone who you don't feel is actually your friend. Especially if that person is busy.
As I say, these are my guidelines, which I recommend to you. I admit that I might sell more books if I crossed more lines, but I would be uncomfortable. I'd rather have my modest sales but feel reasonably comfortable that most people are not being totally bugged by me. I hope! (NB I'm sure, logically, that I've pissed some people off: it would be pretty hard never to cross anyone's lines. But I carefully watch out for what annoys me in others - and I do have a fairly low tolerance - and actively try to avoid doing the same. It's all any of us can do.)

What about Facebook (your Author page, not your personal FB profile) and your own website?
Ah, now this is where you can do much more. People come to your FB page or your website to find out about you. They expect to find links to reviews, newspaper articles, videos of you, or news of awards and short listings. So, putting those items as prominently as you like in those places is absolutely fine, though I would never advocate cockiness or boasting. Saying, "I've been shortlisted for such-and-such" is not the same as saying, "I'm a totally fabulous famous author. Kiss my feet, losers." The point that makes your FB author page or your website a place where you can play by different rules is the element of choice that the visitor has in coming there and why they came: to see you and find out what you've done.

I stressed that I'm talking about the FB Author Page, not your personal page. This is a matter of opinion, but I know that I and many writers and readers who I respect don't like their social space overwhelmed by promotional updates. So, my advice is to keep your "normal" FB page social, soft, supportive, and to do your promotional stuff on your Author page. It doesn't matter if it sometimes overlaps, but I really think the 90/10 rule is best applied to social networks. I think it's fine to post links to your blog sometimes though, as long as that's not all you do. Just don't do the "Ooh, look how freaking successful I am!" thing. Apart from anything else, there are a lots more writers amongst your friends who are feeling very vulnerable and you just trod all over them. They won't thank you.

Back to Twitter, where this began: personally, I think the writer who was being discussed has used Twitter very successfully. Good on him. But I don't like using Twitter. I like enjoying it. Therefore, I can't in all honesty recommend the bugging-the-pants-off-people approach. Even if it works for him. 

What do you think? Do those guidelines make sense? What else bugs you? Or what doesn't?

PS I can't tell you what I'm doing today, because that would be blatant self-promotion. I may casually drop it into conversation on Twitter and hope people will notice. Mind you, if I actually WIN the thing... No, shhh, woman. You just crossed a line. Or did I? What do you think?

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Books with foreign settings

With permission, I'm reproducing this email from reader Elizabeth Dunn:
"Dear Nicola,
I have just read Rachelle Gardner's blog [sorry, can't find it, but anyway] about books with foreign settings being difficult to place in the US market. It is rather disheartening as I am writing my upper middle grade book about a British boy being dragged off to a month long holiday in Venice. Most of the action takes place in Venice. Would UK readers have a hard time reading about Venice? Has my setting completely cut me out of the market? Can a UK based book reach US markets easily? What's your experience?

"Thank you for your time and your great blog."
No, UK readers certainly would have no trouble reading about Venice. Not only is there the well-known Agatha Christie novel, but we've also loved a whole load of others, including the first one that springs to my mind: Salley Vickers' Miss Garnet's Angel. Venice is absolutely a wonderful setting for a novel.

As to whether a UK-based book can reach US markets, it depends on a) the precise setting b) how strong the setting is and c) the other powerful aspects of the story. To elaborate:

a) The precise setting matters: Edinburgh and London will work well. Leicester and Hull less so. With apologies to Leicester and Hull. (And this does NOT mean you can't set books in Leicester and Hull, just that they won't of themselves be a draw to those who don't appreciate the romantic aspects of those cities.) HOWEVER, please note my next point.

b) If the setting is only mildly present, it doesn't matter at all. For example, Meg Rosoff's
Just in Case was set near Luton and won the Carnegie Medal, but the setting is not vividly realised, (though it is important.) If your setting is a major factor, richly described, it matters more if the setting is not well-known to a US/other market. Also, US readers are said to be less willing to read outside their shores, but I think this factor is exaggerated, frankly. Put it this way, no one (sane) is going to read a book because it's about Luton but they might not mind discovering halfway through the book that it happens to be.

c) It's the power of the story that matters most. The setting really shouldn't negatively affect the book if the book is strong enough. And the setting can enrich the book, regardless of whether it's romantic or aspired-to.

So, Elizabeth, I don't think you have a problem. However, writers should consider the power of every aspect of their book over the reader, and setting can be important.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Open letter to the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing

To Nicola Sturgeon, Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing

Dear Ms Sturgeon, 
As the previous Chair of the Society of Authors in Scotland, I wish to draw your attention urgently to a matter that harms both patients and writers.

Until recently, the NHS Scotland held a copyright licence, enabling staff to photocopy important information and writers to earn income from their work as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Without this licence, staff are forbidden from copying any written information. If they do, they are both breaking the law and depriving writers of rightful income.

Now, we hear that the NHS is not renewing its licence.

You may think that all authors are wealthy. This is very far from the case. In 2005, the evidence taken by the Society of Authors showed that, for example, over two thirds of professional writers earn less than half the national average wage. The situation since then has dramatically worsened for almost all of us. My payment from the copyright collecting body (the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Agency) is the most significant payment I receive each year. I can't afford to lose that along with the loss of royalties incurred for so many other reasons.

It will obviously be bad for all of us - patients and authors - if the NHS Scotland does not change its decision. The laws of copyright seek to allow people to copy material legally and the content provider to be recompensed for his or her work and skill. These are both important principles and I am appalled to hear that they are being disregarded.

Please put pressure on the NHS Scotland to reinstate its copyright licence, allowing the legal availability of vital health information to doctors, and crucial income to flow to the creators of that information.

I would be happy to talk to you further about this if you wished. 

Yours sincerely,

Nicola Morgan