29 November, 2012

The Writers' Workshop

The Power of the Professionals

My degree is Biological Anthropology. It's not as posh as it sounds. It's basically human biology, focussing on evolution, with a bit of cool stuff about mummies thrown in. The point is, it's a science degree. For my A-levels I did biology, chemistry and maths. I haven't had a lesson in writing since my GCSEs (compulsory exams at the age of 16, for my friends across the Atlantic!). I'm not a qualified writer. But neither am I some creative genius who doesn't need to be taught. For the last few years I've been teaching myself to write by writing a lot, and by reading a lot. I've read fantastic fiction and also great blog posts and articles from other writers willing to give out their words of wisdom for free. It's been fun.

But if I was to choose one thing that made the biggest difference to my writing since I started taking it seriously about two years ago, it would be The Writers' Workshop. Getting a professional critique on my first attempt at writing a novel (a children's fantasy adventure) taught me more than I could have taught myself in years. A nine page in-depth report of everything I'd done wrong (and some of what I'd done right) taught me both general writing skills and about my own weaknesses as a writer.

It wasn't cheap. When you get a critique you are paying a professional to read your whole manuscript (MS) and make detailed notes. And that takes a lot of their time. It also wasn't comfortable. Having someone pick apart your darling MS and point out all your cringe-worthy amateurish mistakes is a humbling experience. But if anybody out there has the money to do it, I cannot recommend it enough. Getting your friends to read your work - however much you trust them to be honest - is valuable, but it isn't the same.

I used the Writer's Workshop and found them amazing. Not only do they use professional authors to write the critiques - so you are getting someone who has been there, done that and learned how to look stylish in the t-shirt - but they can't seem to do enough for you. Since paying for the critique I have had so much free advice from them - from checking over my cover letters to writing a whole blog post for me when I asked a question about submitting to agents! Harry Bingham, who runs the agency, replies to comments on the blog and even e-mailed me personally when he thought he could help with something.

I was lucky that the author who worked with me thought I had enough potential for her to write the longest report she'd ever done. The detailed advice she gave made the book so much better. OK, so I never found an agent for that one, but I did get feedback from a couple of agencies saying they thought I had something going for me, which kept me pressing on. Although my current adult novel, The Art of Letting Go, never went through the WW, the things I learned from that first critique were crucial in helping me to write it well enough to find an agent.

You may not be able to afford a proper critique - I only did in the end because I won a short story competition and put the prize money towards it - but I recommend visiting the website anyway. It has so much to inpsire writers, from agent interviews to writing courses. I don't usually wax lyrical about organisations on this blog, but I really think WW is tremendous. Unlike some organisations out there, it seems to exist to help and encourage writers at all stages, not to extort money off the back of the precious dreams and ambitions of people who love to write.

What's been the one thing that's made the most difference to your writing? (Other than reading and just writing!)

26 November, 2012

From Quills to Scrivener

Last week came the sad - though not unexpected - news that Britain has made its last typewriter. There is not enough demand in the UK for typewriters any more and so the manufacturers have shut down their factory, donating their last product to the Science Museum in London.

I had a bit of a panic when I heard this news. I don't have a typewriter yet - save one for me! Surely every writer should have a typewriter? I remember typing up a story on my mum's typewriter when I was about eight years old and I loved the mechanical feel of it. It felt industrious somehow. But nowadays the biggest demand for typewriters is probably on film and television sets.

Of course there are reasons why we don't use typewriters anymore. Computers are superior in almost every way, except in romance. There's no romance in a laptop. Word processors are not the stuff sepia-toned memories are made of. I'd love to say that I write my first drafts with a feather quill on cream paper, and then type in up on a 1930s typewriter in a hotel room overlooking the sea. But I don't. I'm very dull. Unromantic or not, I produce all my work - from first draft to final masterpiece (hmmmm) - on Microsoft Word (Georgia 12 point, double-spaced with 3cm margins, if you're interested).

Working out the plot structure of The Art of Letting Go
I don't however, plan my writing on a computer. I always plan by hand. I have a plethora of notebooks for various types of writing, and I always print out first drafts to edit by hand too. My current novel (now called The Art of Letting Go) has its own notebook and my next novel is just waiting to be summoned into possibility inside another.

But there are even more modern ways to get writing. Many people have recommended the software Scrivener. Scrivener is "a word processor and project management tool that stays with you from the first, unformed idea all the way through to final draft". I haven't used it, but I think the idea is that instead of having piles of notes on characters and plot and those sorts of things, you have it all in one place, complete with colour-coding and all sorts of other clever tools. It sounds perfect. But I'd hate it. I've heard brilliant stuff about it. But it's not for me.

My tool-kit for writing The Art of Letting Go
I like to have my walls and desk covered in paper. I love flicking through a notebook to find a note I scribbled when inspiration struck in the middle of making dinner. I enjoy having a massive theasuarus on my desk even though it's just as easy to look at an online version. Some writers always write their first draft by hand to make the process more thoughtful, others use software like Scrivener because they love the clean order of their physical workspace when everything exists in a virtual one instead. The trick is finding what works for you and not allowing yourself to feel inferior because it's not what Hemmingway or Dickens did.

Are you a pen and paper kind of person or a Scrivener scribbler? If you do use Scrivener - or any other specialist software - I'd love to hear what you think of it and whether you'd recommend it to other writers.

20 November, 2012

An Agent!

So this is the post I've dreamed of being able to write! I am very pleased to tell you that I have just accepted representation from David Haviland at The Andrew Lownie Literary Agency for my novel (current title Thousand-Word Things - though not for much longer!). It's all been a bit surreal.

Having experienced plentiful rejection in the past I had geared myself up for a year of sending out my partial manuscript (MS) to agents and getting rejections. I dreamed bigger, of course, but was prepared for the worst. After all, aren't we always told that only somewhere between one in 500 and one in 1000 MS submissions to agents are successful? In the end though, it's all been crazily fast. I started sending out this MS on the 19th October; I accepted representation on the 19th November!

On the same day I blogged about getting my first tough rejection, I got my first break! My friend Martyn (who I probably owe a cup of Earl Grey) persuaded the fiction agent at Andrew Lownie's (Martyn has worked with Andrew) to read my novel, and so I sent off my full MS.

While I was really happy at this foot in the door, it felt a bit like cheating. I know that almost none of those one in 1000 books actually comes from the slush pile - they are nearly all personal recommendations, but I still felt like I'd skipped a stage. Therefore, I was even more delighted the next day when another agency - Eve White - picked my novel off the slush pile and liked it enough to ask for the full MS. I suddenly had two interested agents!

I only had two days of trying to keep my expectations low before I had the wonderful e-mail from David, saying he'd read the whole thing, containing the magic words "I'd very much like to represent you". Without any preliminary hints at interest it came as a bolt from the blue - I think I was in shock for about a day!

As a writer my instinct was to agree to everything and get something signed straight away before David realised his mistake! But an agent has to be right for you and for your book. So there followed 10 agonising days as I kept in touch with Eve White and with David, and took advice from various professionals (including this very useful page, and the wonderful Writer's Workshop who are so amazing they'll get their own post later!). During this time I got a rejection from another agency, plus two rejections for other pieces of work - it was a bit of a crazy rollercoaster time! "Luckily" I was distracted from some of the waiting by picking up one of those winter vomiting bugs. Lovely.

I won't give you a blow by blow account of everything that happened (especially not the bug) - I appreciate it's only really interesting for me! In the end, both David and Eve had much the same praise and criticism for my novel, but Eve didn't feel she could make an offer until I'd addressed the issues first. I'm so grateful to her and her readers though for their encouragement that I have "real potential as an author". They are an agency I'd recommend submitting to. In a way it made my job easier. Having spoken to (and researched!) David and the agency, I really liked him and was extremely keen to work with him but knew I should be professional and hold out until I'd spoken to Eve! I was delighted to accept David's offer.

For me this is the ideal situation. David and his agency are a great combination. David is a new-ish agent and so has time and enthusiasm and is actively building his list (if anybody reading this is looking for an agent...), but he's a writer and has been working as an editor for Andrew Lownie for years. The agency itself is very well-respected - for all my google-searching and quizzing industry experts, I can't find a bad word said about it, even on the formiddable site Preditors and Editors. It prides itself in working to develop new writers' careers. I've heard it said before that new writers do well with new agents, so a new agent at an established and respected agency is perfect!

So now the work starts again. I've got a fair few changes to make before we even think about trying to find a publisher (and of course there's a very high chance it still won't sell and be published). But it feels like I've at least cleared the first hurdle at last. Then there's the next novel to start writing...

Thanks for allowing me a long and self-indulgent post - back to normal next week (so only slightly too long and self-indulgent). But I hope you'll journey with me through the excitement and insecurity of whatever happens next. (And thanks to all those who have sent me texts and e-mails full of exclamation marks and capital letters already - you rock!)

16 November, 2012

World Book Night 2013: The Books

A while ago I posted about World Book Night. At the time I was asking you to vote for the book that you thought should be given away for free to encourage people to read. Each year, 20 books are chosen from all the nominations, to create a well-rounded list.

Well, the list of books to be given away next year has just been finalised. World Book Night will be on April 23rd (as always), and until January 23rd you can apply to help out with distributing the books. The list for next year is:

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman
Girl with a Pearl Earring  by Tracy Chevalier
The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
The White Queen by Philippa Gregory
A Little History of the World by E.H Gombrich
Little Face by Sophie Hannah
Damage by Josephine Hart
The Island by Victoria Hislop
Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay
Last Night Another Soldier...  by Andy McNab - the first "quick read" for WBN

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
The Reader by Bernard Schlink
No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Road Home by Rose Tremain
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
Judge Dredd: The Dark Judges by John Wagner -  the first graphic novel for WBN

I confess I've only read four of these so far, but The Knife of Never Letting Go and Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal are going on my list of must-read books. I'm still very much open to suggestions for that list by the way. I'm particularly keen to add more books from the last couple of years or proper old classics. Visit my 'Book' page and leave a comment if you've got a suggestion for me. Thanks!

How many of these have you read? Any favourites?

14 November, 2012

An Interview With... Derek Thompson

Recently I posted about whether to self-publish or hold out for the traditional option. As I have no experience of self-publishing I thought I'd interview somebody who has! Step forward Derek Thompson, whose novel Covenant has come through dodgy working titles and many drafts to be self-published this month. Derek is a very nice man and a professional copy-writer whose services are listed here.


1. Is Covenant your first novel?
Yes, Covenant is my firstborn! I had the original ideas back in the mists of time, and developed Covenant (originally entitled, gulp, The Promise of a Rainbow) over a number of years. And by developed I mean that I picked at it occasionally and then left it for a year or three. In truth, it took time for me to see the emerging patterns within Covenant. I've also written a few thousands words of the sequel, Restitution.

    2. Have you been traditionally published in the past?
I have quite a varied footprint...
Articles: Last of the Line for The Guardian and in Canadian mag Thrive in Life, green living pieces for Discover magazine and chicken pieces (!) for Country Smallholding magazine. You can also find examples of my short fiction in three anthologies: Coffee Shop Chronicles, Beyond the Horizon (where there's also a piece by a certain Chloe Banks...) and Flash Fiction South West.

    3. What is Covenant about?
The book takes place on a colonised world. Successive wars have split humanity into three factions - those who live in walled city states; the settlers, who live in isolated communities in the forests, desert and mountains; and a nomadic religious group known as the Thaylin Sarra who wander amongst them. Their faith is a mixture of Old Earth established religious traditions, along with Western mysticism.

The Thaylin Sarra believe that a martyred teacher will return with her disciples to liberate them and reveal their spiritual homeland. Her four disciples reincarnate about 500 years after her death, without knowing either their connection or their obligation. One is a priestess, one an outsider, one a heretic and one has been indoctrinated by the Appren - the enemy of the Thaylin Sarra faith. 

Individual and collective destinies are interwoven in a classic fantasy quest. However, there aren't always comfortable answers or convenient solutions. The book also looks at the nature of loss, honour and personal sacrifice. That's the intention, anyway.

    4. What made you decide to self-publish
In a sense, self-publishing Covenant is like a gift to myself. A way of thanking the younger me who stuck with it and produced a completed book that I could work with. It's also a way of honouring the many people who have read part or all of the manuscript over the long years. The decision to finally opt for self-publication came after a conventional publisher surprised me with a 'writer contribution' where I'd contribute over £5000. That was the last bridge, so to speak, and made me realise that the remedy was in my own hands.

    5. What were the hardest things about self-publishing?
Firstly, knowing exactly what to do and when. I was fortunate because a friend had written a self-publishing guide. And, if I'd read it carefully first instead of diving in, I could have saved myself time and stress! Secondly, the 'm' word - marketing. Having a book out there is great for about two days. And then you realise that a book needs readers and you have to go and find them. Not once, but often! Thirdly, whether you have employed an editor and a cover artist or done everything yourself, you are responsible for all the key decisions.

    6. What is/are the best thing(s) about self-publishing?
It's the flip side of all the hard things. You get to format your book to meet your requirements, at your own pace, and then you're free to market it however you see fit. You can take risks, experiment and play with concepts.

    7. Do you have a strategy for selling?
Not really, but I have given it some thought.
Covenant should appeal to three distinct groups of readers:
a) Lovers of fantasy fiction.
b) Those with an interest in the esoteric subjects touched upon in the book - the tarot, meditation, reincarnation and the Tree of Life.
c) People who enjoy allegorical fiction that contains spiritual or philosophial ideas - readers of Paulo Coelho or Dan Millman perhaps.

    8. How long did it take you to go from finished book to published book?
In terms of making the decision to self-publish, about four months for the ebook. Most of that time was spent on the final, deep tissue edit. As hinted at above, the paperback will soon follow.

   9.  What would be your top pieces of advice to someone thinking about self-publishing?
a) Recognise your comfort zones, limitations and resources, so you know when to outsource key aspects.
b) Plan what you're going to do, and when, and do your research. Again, I recommend the guide I used - I was so pleased with it that I included a link in my ebook.

    10.  Would you self-publish again?
That is a difficult question to answer. Yes, under certain circumstances. Covenant is the first novel of a two-parter (duology isn't a word that comes naturally to me!), but I'd only self-publish if I knew there was sufficient demand. I would definitely consider self-pubbing smaller pieces of work.

    11.  What are you doing next?
Apart from wearing my bookseller sandwich board, you mean? I'm doing my darnedest to promote my ebook of Covenant and ebook Superhero Club, which has just been launched by Musa Publishing. And I plan to celebrate when the paperback version of Covenant is finally out (around 22nd November).

Meantime, I have a couple of other novels on submission, a monthly magazine column to keep me busy, and I'm itching to start work on a new Thomas Bladen novel (Following on from Standpoint and Line of Sight).

    12.   You've described your book as a mystical fantasy and mentioned some of the esoteric topics within it. Would you say that there's a religious aspect to your book as well?
Yes. I thought long and hard about whether to refer to Covenant as a work of religious fiction, but decided not to as the esoteric / magical side of it is key to the plot and the structure. All that said, the book is about faith. Although at first glance a book that deals with the tarot, mysticism and magic could be considered irreligious there is also another side to Covenant that relates to Judaeo-Christian ideas. Irrespective of people's individual beliefs, I would hope that readers see some spiritual elements within the book. 

So there we go - a little insight into the mind of a self-publisher. Thanks, Derek! You can learn more about Covenant and buy the Kindle edition here (or here if you are in the USA). 

Do you have any other questions about self-publishing? What puts you off or encourages you?

09 November, 2012

Collective Nouns

A quick little post for the weekend... I've just got myeslf a new copy of the Writer's and Artist's Yearbook. While reading one of the great mini-essays it contains, I got thinking about collective nouns. The writer of this essay suggested that the collective name for literary agents should be a 'clause'.

I've always had a bit of a fascination with collective nouns. They delight me rather more than they should. Some of my favourites that spring to mind, include:
  • a kindle of kittens
  • a charm of goldfinch
  • a murder of crows (or ravens?)
  • a parliament of owls
  • a knot of toads
 Of course I could now look up a list of all sorts of other entertaining collective nouns for you, but we can all use google, so instead I'd like to know:
a) do you have any collective nouns you love?
b) can we make up some of our own?

For example, what should a group of writers be called? A chapter of writers? Perhaps that sounds a bit too like a religious sect. How about a curiosity of writers?

If you have/had a non-writing day job, what do you think you (and your colleagues) should be called? An explosion of electricians? A database of software developers? A weariness of stay-at-home-mums-with-toddlers?

My degree was a mixture of biology and anthopology. I'm going to plump for... hmmmm... a puddle of biologists and a nosiness of anthropologists. But perhaps you can do better with your profession?

06 November, 2012

On Rejection... again

Back in March I posted about the most inevitable part of being a writer who's trying to get published - rejections. Whether it's not making a competition shortlist, a short story not being accepted by a magazine editor, or an agent failing to see the potential of your novel, rejections happen. Sometimes they happen a lot. In quick succession.

Last weekend I got my first rejection for my novel, Thousand-Word Things. I was really disappointed - much more so than usual (I try to be chipper about such matters) - as the agency was one which had liked some of my previous work enough to send me a letter of encouragement. This time, it was just a standard rejection letter.

My plight became somewhat comedic on Sunday, when I told some good friends that I'd had a rejection. Their three year-old daughter was very concerned, thinking I had said 'injection' and wanting to know what was wrong. Thus followed a loud conversation between her and her mother, in the middle of our church, along the lines of:

"Not injection, darling. Rejection. Chloe's had a rejection. A REjection. REJECTION. No, Chloe's fine. She's had a REJECTION, not an injection. Rejection means..."

Lucky it's not a sensitive subject, huh?

As time goes on I find myself feeling more reluctant to talk to non-writers about the submission process. It's easier to pretend you're not trying, than to admit you're failing. However much I quote statistics at them (about one in every 1000 submissions to literary agents is successful), I feel like they must be judging me for not being "good enough". I'm both touched by and dread the question, "Any news?" (News? Well for the last year I've sat at my computer every day trying to put words in the right order, and now I'm just about ready to have a lot of people I don't know tell me it's not good enough.)

If you're not a writer (or not one who submits work to editors), what's your impression of the world of agents and submissions? What do you think when a writer tells you about their failures?

I firmly believe that you can't be a writer if you remain downbeat about rejections for too long. But equally you can't be a writer if you don't care! Sometimes you'll be riding a wave (a couple of years ago I had a few months where I won prizes in several short ficiton competitions as well as getting my first commission for an anthology); other times you'll go months with no news or only rejections. Last time I asked you about your best and worst rejections. Today, I want to ask you about your attitude to them instead. Do rejections get you down? Do you have a limit of how many you can take before reaching for the chocolate? When do you give up?

I'm still excited about my novel, which is already in the inboxes of other agents. But in the difficult moments, when I'm trying to justify committing every day to writing and hoping, I remind myself of this quote from Jill Dawson (one I've posted before):

"I can, of course, see the temptation of not beginning. Chiefly, not beginning sustains the belief that you are gifted, that the novel - when you one day get round to writing it - will surpass all others [...] Not beginning protects you from the disappointment - no, the shame - of reading what you have written and finding it rubbish. It also prevents you from an equally disturbing possibility: discovering that you can write."

At least I began.

02 November, 2012

Is it Hot in Here, Or...

After posting about the strange love affair between Waterstones and Amazon, I got thinking about my own unlikely crushes. No, not of the human variety (and my husband is not so very strange when you get to know him), but books.

There are a few books I thought I'd never like. There was a good reason for it: I'd tried them and it just wasn't happening for us. While some books swept me off my feet with the literary equivalent of roses and chocolate, these books had me faking food poisoning and leaving the restaurant by the back door. Two books that came in the latter category for me are 1984 by George Orwell, and Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons.

I tried to read 1984 when I was about 14 years-old and I found it too hard. I didn't understand what was going on in this dystopia. Who was Big Brother? Why was everybody agreeing with something that wasn't true? I got less than halfway through it before giving up. It was the same with Cold Comfort Farm. I was in my late teens this time and I didn't get it. It annoyed me when patronising people said things like, "You do know it's meant to be funny, right?", as if I might have thought that it was serious, rather than a pastiche. Yes, I knew it was meant to be funny. No, I didn't find it funny. No, I didn't finish it.

But unlike a date who spends the first half hour of dinner talking about himself and trying to squeeze your knee under the tablecloth, I gave these books a second-chance. I tried 1984 again only about a year after abandoning it (and, appropriately enough for this post, because a boy that I had a bit of a crush on said it was his favourite book) and this time I loved it. It remained one of my very favourite novels long after the boy had lost his charm for me.

Cold Comfort Farm I only tried again earlier this year. I was sure I'd hate it, but as it's on the BBC Top 100 list - which I'm trying to read all of - I had to give it another go. Again, it's now one of my favourite books. I found it very funny this time, and couldn't put it down. So it just goes to show, sometimes giving a book a second chance is a good idea.

With this in mind, I think I might read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald again soon. I hated it, but so many people I know love it. Perhaps I was just too young. One book I shan't be trying again however, is On The Road by Jack Kerouac. Sometimes you dislike a book so much, life is too short to reply to its pleading text messages asking for a second date.

Are there any books that you fell in love with second-time around? Or are there classics that you wouldn't even give the time of day if you saw them in the street?

I wanted to extend this post into a discussion of the weird crushes we might have on fictional characters. But I can't think of any. My fictional crush is Mr. Knightley from Emma. But that's not weird. That's almost obligatory. But don't let me stop you... Do you fancy Snape? Would you meet Frankenstein's monster for a cocktail after work? Do you hanker after Miss Havisham? Or is your fictional crush boringly mainstream like mine?