Wednesday, 14 October 2009


Dear Crabbit Old Bat,
You give such good advice on your esteemed blog (bows, scrapes and touches forelock) that I wondered if you could help me? See, I am really trying my very, very best to follow all your words of wisdom (more flattery, more, more) but I still don't quite seem to have managed to get published. So, please go on my website, where you'll see I have put loads of samples of my best works, including the much-loved (by me) fantasy trilogy, The Mega-Magical World of Gloom Valley and the Invasion of the Man-Eating Night-Birds. I just wondered if you could tell me what you think and give me some advice to get me published. Go on, you know you want to! I'd be really grateful. Anyway, I know you're not really as crabbit as you seem!

Yours in anticipation,
A Fan
OK, I know I exaggerate, but only a bit. See, I've been getting a few of these emails recently. In fact, more than a few.

Of course I'm thrilled. My heart melts with a warm glow. I am touched. Especially by words like "esteemed" and "wisdom" and "Fan". And by the idea that you think I can wave a magic wand and help you.

On the other hand, I am not thrilled. There are a few reasons why I am not thrilled and why I have a minor frisson of panic and meh-ness when you (lovely) readers contact me in this way.

Reasons to say meh on receipt of such emails:

  1. I am very (very) busy
  2. I should be spending much more time on trying to earn a living. (Ask my agent).
  3. I spend hours giving free advice on my blog, which I absolutely love doing but which I kind of feel is enough at least in terms of the free part
  4. It takes a lot of time to offer individual advice
  5. And there can be a severe downside  -  especially if you didn't like my advice. It could get personal. I'm not very good with personal: it tends to keep me awake at night.
  6. Another downside is that unless we have a formal agreement at the start, you could turn round and accuse me of stealing your idea. Now, I know I wouldn't do that (I have enough of my own) but can I afford the time to explain that and get it cleared up before I read your tome?
  7. Advice that might seem to you to be easily accessible in my head, all ready to be spewed out onto the keyboard, actually takes some time to sort out and set out and check
  8. You are asking me to give professional advice for nothing. Would you expect a lawyer to do this? Or an accountant? Or a plumber? Or frankly, any self-employed person. Now I know that I'm not really crabbit but actually pathetically generous, and often say yes to things I shouldn't, but I have to draw the line, and the line is here.
In short, I have to ask myself the ruthless question, What's in it for me?

Now, there is an answer to this question which might help both you and me: next year, I plan to start offering individual advice, in the form of a professional critique service, talks and workshops. The planned name is Pen2Publication. At the moment I am thinking through the details with a partner. (While also doing my existing writing, if you're listening, o wondrous agent. And yes, that novel will get written...)

Ideas include:
  • critiques at various levels
  • individual advice on submissions
  • residential weekends / days with around 20 aspiring writers, where we focus on "how to make a publisher say yes". I'd do the weekends in partnership with another writer.
  • talks around the theme "Hurdles and Hooks  -  your road to being published"  -  I already have some events lined up for university Creative Writing MA courses, but I'll also do talks open to the public, or to existing writers' groups. (If your group might be interested, let me know).
So, what do you think? (See, there's me asking for free advice now!) I'm trying to assess demand and see what people would want. But it has to be secondary to my main writing work.

Meanwhile, to those of you who want to ask for individual advice, please bear in mind the downsides for me.  I can't / won't read your work for nothing  -  not even if you try to persuade me with boots, Hotel Chocolat or sparkly wine.

HOWEVER  -  if there's a small question of possibly public interest you'd like me to answer, do ask me and I'll blog about it if possible. (Email I'll do it with or without naming you, at your instruction.

It's the "please read my work and tell me what you think" that's the problem. You may think, "she's a successfulish writer so she can afford to do these things." Unfortunately, successfulish only happens if I try to be balance free stuff with paid stuff. My agent  -  who reads this blog, so I should watch what I say  -  thinks I'm writing a novel. I am. I am.

Meanwhile, I hope you're all working hard on your entries to the Hotel Chocolat Halloween competition. Flash fiction is a genuinely great opportunity to hone your writing skills and write for a public audience. And with ten prizes, the odds are good.


Catherine Hughes said...

Ah, see, that little note that got lost in transfer was important!

As for the business idea - unhesitatingly yes. I would love to come to a seminar / residential course / whatever-I-can-get. I'd also consider paying for a critique. It's not something I've done so far because I have trust issues. But the more I read here, the more I trust.

Also, I am still very hopeful of getting an agent (one full one initial query still now outstanding through strange coincidences etc) in which case editorial advice might well come from them.

But, in the longer term, if I don't get representation, I would consider spending dosh trying to figure out why.

Only from someone I trusted.

So, for what it may be worth, I rather suspect that this blog may well prove not be of the 'not so much in it for you' variety. Because the more people get to know you through your blog, the more potential I'll-sign-up-immediately clients you already have.

Does it still show that I used to do this social media stuff for a living??

Oh, and as for seminars etc - would do that just for the sheer fun of it!

Categorically - GO FOR IT!

Dayspring said...

I think that all sounds very good, and like Catherine, I agree the blog has been great for building up your readers' trust in you for such a venture. I do hope it doesn't burn you out to be doing so much work on others' writing, though - anything that takes away time for your own writing must be a little frustrating.

Perhaps in the meantime, either you, Nicola, or some of the other readers could nominate some good writers' groups in Scotland or elsewhere? That is the most appropriate place for feedback...I'm thinking of joining one.

Go away google said...

Something you could do would be to, once a week or so, do a post saying in so many words: 'This week I've had requests for a more personal critique from [lists of names and websites here]. I don't have time to do it but if any of you readers have constructive comments to make here or on the website, I'm sure the authors will be appreciative'.

Of course, there are various risks to this, but it might be a way of helping a little without giving up your precious time. As you do with submissions, you could ask people to make their industry status clear, so the writers know if the feedback is from peers or insiders.

Simon Kewin said...

Yes, I'd certainly be interested in the Pen2Publication thing.

Mary Hoffman said...

That will be wonderful news for your main readership, Nicola.

And you would at last have some financial reward for all the advice you have so far given so generously for nothing.

I would certainly be happy to give pen2publication publicity on my blog.

Barb said...

Very interested in all you have mentioned for Pen2Publication, especially as you've been good enough to live in the same city as me!

It has really inspired me that you have posted this response to people over-stepping the mark. I'm still learning my craft and seeing what I can do with words, but I get email requests from people to review their work. You've given me an extra boost of confidence in saying no. Thank you.

HelenMWalters said...

I think workshops or similar run by you would be very popular indeed. I'd be keen to attend if it was geographically possible.

Kate said...

That sounds like a great idea Nicola. Your posts are always so interesting and informative I am sure seminars would be booked in minutes

Kate x

csmith said...

1) Great idea. Hope you find the time for it though..

but mainly I now what to change my name to "Esteemed Wisdom Fan" to get people on-side.

*runs off to smite the written word n submission*

catdownunder said...

Now, now Ms Morgan! Are you sure all these purrlans are not mere dispurrlacement activity? Purrhaps you are looking for a new career?
Selfishly (and assuming you would accept an ancient cat in the class) I would like to attend a weekend, although it would be rather expensive to come to Upover from Downunder!
But (I have to ask) where will you get time to write in all this?

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

Hello... I've just discovered your blog, which is brilliant and you are of course wonderful (fawn, fawn). It is rather good though. And I have a question.

I'm in what I think is an unusual situation. My first book was published by a small-but-respected publisher who subsequently ceased trading. My second book was - via an agent (which I didn't have for the first) - published in a foreign country, translated into their language. Said country are not into making a big fuss of "first time" authors (apparently my first book doesn't count), so it has been rather non-eventish for me. No author publicity, no big marketing bucks, and sadly the book hasn't made much of an impact. No reviews apart from two critical Amazon reviews: a one-star and a three-star. Personally I think it was a bad translation (I happen to speak the language concerned) and was pitched at entirely the wrong market. But then I would say that.

Unfortunately, at around the time the foreign book was published, I lost my agent. You'll just have to believe me when I say it wasn't my fault, as it wouldn't be professional to go into details. Whether they would ever have managed to sell the book into other territories is questionable, but we'll never know now.

So here I am, my baby is out there but unreadable in its native tongue, and no agent will touch it with a barge pole cos it has already been flogged to death by the original agent. I - egotistic author that I am - am in a massive sulk about the fact that nobody I care about can read the damn thing, and the holy grail of publication hasn't involved a single piece of ego-stroking or validation, and it feels as though it may as well not have happened.

Indeed, I'm so depressed that I've given up writing altogether. Abandoned the third novel in first draft stage and embarked on a new career.

Don't worry - I'm not expecting you to tell me I did the right thing by giving up. It clearly shows a lack of backbone and an excessive degree of childish sulk, the kind which would preclude a successful publishing career.

Actually I don't know what my question is. I think it was going to be something along the lines of, "Do you think sometimes a writer just has to admit they are a bit crap, and give up?" which is only the aforementioned sulkiness in a very thin disguise... or maybe, "Don't you agree that I've had a particularly raw deal? You feel sorry for me, right?" - which would be more of the same...

Obviously what I need to do is either (a) keep going and make each book better than the last, or (b) stop worrying about publication - just write for the sake of it, or (c) acknowledge that I've been writing for the wrong reasons, and have a break until I can think of some better reasons to keep doing it. But stop with all the whingeing.

Hmmm. Thank you. That helped.

Oh! I thought of a question! Here it is:

Have you come across this phenomenon before? Writers who have a book which is only ever published in one other country, translated, and with no fanfare or success? Do they get sulky about it too, or am I just outrageously ungrateful? So far I'm the only writer I know who has experienced this thing.

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

(oh arse, damn blogger won't let me ask for notification of follow-ups unless I comment again. Sorry)

Natasha Solomons said...

Have you seen this yet?

I know it's upset some people but I think it's rather funny...

Ebony McKenna. said...

You've said 'no I can't read your stuff' in a much nicer way than a great many writers.

An unpublished writer is asking a published writer - someone they don't even know - to do them a favour, for free.

Nicola, you already give back plenty, through the excellent advice in this blog and attending festivals and schools etc. And if your agent is reading this (or mine for that matter) WE'RE BOTH WRITING OUR NOVELS, WE PROMISE!

I have recently said no to reading someone's stuff. I also blogged about it, so that when it happens again, I can direct people to this page.

Sarah said...

Love the idea of Pen2Publication! I was sorry when you had to lay aside the idea earlier this year.

One of my favorite parts of writer's conferences is the chance to have someone in the business look over some of my writing. (During pitch or critique sessions- I'm not accosting hapless editors in the ladies' room.) I always learn something that improves my writing.

But to have a longer period of time with a writer or two?

That would be lovely. Especially if it included chocolate.

Nicola Morgan said...

Sarah - of course there would be chocolate! (Imagine if Hotel Choc agreed to sponsor it!)

Natasha - ouch! rather brilliant and very much to the point, but I can see why some people would have been annoyed. I bet it did the trick though.

Ebony - thank you!

Beleaguered Squirrel - I was so interesting in your tale that I'd actually like to make a whole blog post about it, if i may? I think it raises some v interesting issues that I'd love to tackle. In short (very short), obviously we can't know if you're writing is good or not without seeing it, but I actually do believe your story and suspect that you probably have been very unlucky. Now, your writing also may not be good enough (yet??) - but I'd really like to unpick lots of aspects of what's happen to you? Can i do that in a full post? Do email me ( to discuss - and i will keep confidential anything else you tell me. What I DON'T want to know at this time is your real name and the details of your books because I want to answer in the abstract at least at first. BUT I would like to know what genre your novels are, and whether children's or adults. I'd also need to know what country you live in and what country/language your 2nd novel appeared in. Thanks very much for sharing your story.

Anna - I think that would take more time than you suspect and it would also detract from my own space to rabbit on about things. So, I'm not sure.

Book Maven - thank you for those very kind words!

Catherine, Dayspring, Simon, Barb, Helen, Kate, csmith, cat and Anna - thanks for your votes of confidence. I am going to think very carefully about how to control this and not get caught up in the various downsides. But the talks / weekends will certainly happen, is nothing else.

Everyone - I'm away today and tomorrow, so it won't be easy to comment, but I will be reading yours.

emma darwin said...

I reckon that people are entitled to ask this kind of thing, and I'm entitled to say no, or to say yes, and what I charge is £x. If they then get in a huff, that's their problem not mine.

What actually annoys me far, far more is when people ask me to support work - with puffs, votes, links, blog tours etc. - I haven't read, or writers whose work I don't know.

Nicola Morgan said...

Emma - I agree, and I certainly don't think badly of someone for asking this (as long as they ask in a certain way and are not entirely blind to my perspective - because if someone is blind to my perspective then I think they may be rather difficult to work with). I wanted my blog post somewhat gently to explain exactly what goes through my head when they ask their question! I will now have to work out what that fee might be, and that's the tricky bit, because really the time it takes to give proper help is probably greater than can be charged for. Hmmm.

bubblecow said...

I think the hardest part of being asked to read people's website/work for free is that they often just want to be told it is good. The problem you (I) face is that most of the time it is not good!

I feel the act of a writer paying for feedback often means they are much more willing to hear and except constructive criticism.

I also found the comment about trust very interesting. I have noticed in recent months that more and more sites are setting themselves up as publishing experts. Yet when you dig a little deeper you find these people are either not published or worse still self published. My advice would be to look for writers who make a living from writing. Look only to take advice from writers that have agents and actually sell books!

crimeficreader said...

Apologies for this being totally unrelated to your post, but I wanted to thank you. An author friend of mine drew my attention earlier today to the fact that you mentioned my blog in your article in Autumn's The Author.
Thank you very much. The news made my day!
It's a very good and perceptive article too, with great comments from people in the world of publishing about the changes taking place re marketing and promo, plus your good advice for navigating the blog world.
All the best,

none said...

dear Crabbit Old Bat

i have no time to write the flash fiction pls just send me the chocolate


Robin said...

I think Pen2Publication is a great idea and you'd get loads of support for it, though I'm blowed if I know how you're going to find time for it. Would any part of it be on line? Alas, I don't live in the UK and wouldn't be able to take advantage of your seminars. Sigh.

Stroppy Author said...

Yes, please do Pen2Publication and then we can all send our 'please comment on my book' people your way!

Nicola Morgan said...

bubblecow - agree, and it's the thing that worries me.

stroppyb - only if they're a) good and b) can pay!

Robin - the critique/tuition part can be online - the only thing I'd say to you is that the UK market is different from the US (with many other countries being more like UK in relevant ways), and I would not feel confident commenting in anything more than a general way on someone's work if it was meant for US markets and agents/publishers. What country are you in?

BuffyS - not a chance.

crimeficreader - no, thank *you*!

Beleaguered S - "I was so interesting in your tale..." Que? Silly me! I have now contacted you anyway.

catdownunder said...

Is it the tale or the tail? :-)

none said...


rodgriff said...

Thanks for the suggestion, it seems like a good idea. Having said that there is also the problem that different people say different things. I have been told that one of my current books in draft is too linear and also not linear enough. Both these come from folk who are making a living in the field, they can't both be right. That is of course followed by the other cop out 'Oh well if they don't agree there must be something wrong with it so do it again.'
When I was appointed as a professor (not in writing I hasten to add) a wise person pointed out to me that the difference between professors and the rest was that they should be able to answer the question, 'why do I think I am right?' If you think you can answer that then you should do this. Of course you should also do it if you think you might make piles of money, after all that's what so many others are doing.

Nicola Morgan said...

Rodgriff - thanks for commenting. I need to take issue a little with you, however - I am crabbit, after all!

You say "there is also the problem that different people say different things." And you go on to give some examples. This is something I've talked about before. See my post here:

It's very important for people who are sending their work to agents/editors/anyone whose opinion they are asking for, to understand the nature of personal response vs objectivity in any judgement of a piece of writing. Of course, an opinion is "just an opinion" but it's an expert opinion. Expert opinions can differ, even between experts who are genuinely good at what they do and genuinely the right experts for you to have consulted - although if you consult the right experts for your work, you are most unlikely to get importantly conflicting opinions. If we don't understand that as writers, we don't entirely understand writing and reading. So, paying for an opinion is a matter (as you suggest, I think) of finding the person you can most trust and who is most appropriate for your writing and your plans for it. Then, what do you do when the "expert" doesn't say your work is wonderful? Too often, the writer then dismisses the opinion as worthless. THAT is the difficulty for me of what I'm proposing.

So, it's not about whether I think I can answer your "why do I think I am right?" (which I can: "Because I will only take on your work if I understand the specific type of work you do and the precise market at which it would be aimed; and that is based on having had 90 books of my own published, across genres, having a huge range of contacts and knowledge-base, and many varied testimonials.") It's about whether I can deal with the fact that many people won't like my opinion when I give it. Can I do that while still focusing on my own writing?

On your other point, I believe that people who have followed my blog for a while know that I not only have the knowledge and skills but that I also operate under a banner of 100% integrity. So, your suggestion that I might also do it if I think "I might make piles of money" is one I will gently ignore, if you don't mind. Except to say that I think it is rather unlikely!

I think it is a very legitimate way to earn a professional fee, and I will do it, if I do, with confidence and integrity.