26 February, 2013

The World's Worst Poet

I was tickled to read this article on The Guardian website about how an unpublished poem by the "world's worst poet" is expected to make thousands of pounds at auction.

The poem is by William Topaz McGonagall, a scottish weaver most famed for his terrible poem The Tay Bridge Disaster. This particular gem, however, is In Praise of the Royal Marriage, written to celebrate the forthcoming marriage of the Duke of York (later King George V). It contains such gems as:

May their hearts, always be full of glee. 
And, be kind, to each other, and ne'er disagree.

Now, I'm no poet but I can see how 200 poems with the same crude rhyming structure from start to finish, gets old. Indeed, poor William was known to have been pelted with rotten fish by his audiences. There's nothing wrong with rhyming poetry (I generally prefer it) but making lines rhyme with each other is not the same as writing poetry, in the same way that writing a good novel isn't solely a matter of putting down a plot line in a coherent manner. There's much more to it than that. And William seemed incapable of anything more. I don't think he centred-aligned all his poems, and I'm pretty sure he was too early for comic sans, but that's the sort of poet he was.

William's poems are the sort's of things you find in cheap birthday cards: rhyming couplets or perhaps an ABAB structure, with the normal expressions of English language twisted to make sure the rhyming word comes at the end of the sentence. It's excruciating, but for a poet so bad, there's something rather charming about it too - like the first poetry efforts of a child.

Have you ever read a published work that you truly thought was dreadful? What about anything that was so bad it was funny?

I'll leave you with some advice from William Topaz McGonagall's most famous poem, about the collapse of the Tay Bridge in 1879, while a train was travelling over it:
 That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

21 February, 2013

Unique Writing Tips

I know what you're thinking - the last thing the internet needs is another blog post by a jumped-up writer who thinks they can teach you something about writing. And you'd be right. Mr. Google is a wonderful source of information for writers looking for general tips, so this post is actually about those writing tips each of us carry within us.

I have a theory. I reckon every writer has learned something for themselves nobody would ever have thought to teach them in the first place. Maybe you have more than one of these unique writing tips, but if you've been writing more than a couple of years I bet you have at least one somewhere.

So here is my tip for you; something that has been a painful lesson to me over the last year or so:

Do not reference Rick Astley in your writing.

Image from Amazon. Inspired? Get Rick here!

Seriously. I made the mistake of referencing him in one of my short stories. I've been fiddling with the story off and on for a year or so - never quite sure what I wanted to do with it or what needed fixing to make it work - and EVERY time I so much as open the word document a song starts up in a loop in my head. Altogether now... "Never gonna give you up/ Never gonna let you down..." I'd take that bit out, but it's too late, the damage has been done. Yes friends, I managed to Rickroll myself.

Come on then - what unexpected lessons have you learned from your writing? 

[And for anybody who has found this blog by googling 'unique writing tips', hoping for something a bit more helpful here are three for free. These aren't unique but, hey, people have been writing for thousands of years, what were you expecting? 1) Check every adverb. Absolutely 100% vital? If not, cut it. 2) Can you imagine a real person actually speaking your dialogue? 3) Your first draft is not good enough. Whoever you are. It's not.]

18 February, 2013


Happy Monday everyone! And happy President's Day to my American friends! I know you're busy, so I'll cut to the chase...

Everyday Fiction is a wonderful website which puts up a new piece of flash fiction - perfect for reading during a coffee or lunch break - every single day. I am pleased to say my light-hearted re-telling of a classic fairytale, Charmed, is the story for today. As it's an American public holiday, I fear most regular readers will be too busy having fun to visit the site today, so why not help me out by popping over and taking a look (and maybe even leaving me a handful of stars or a comment while you're there)? I very rarely write something so frivolous, so grab it while it's hot! (Frivolous also rarely equals literary masterpiece, but I had a lot of fun with this one, and I hope you do too.)

13 February, 2013

The Beta Readers

Last week I posted about ideal readers - those people, real or imaginary, who we are writing for in our heads. Ideal readers are great for making a book seem like a reality, but by far the most important readers - at least until your book is a runaway success (and perhaps even then) - are the "beta readers". These wonderful people spend their time reading the rubbish drafts of your work and telling you what they think. For free.

My beta, Jenny (with husband, Joe, another of my readers!)
It's a vulnerable thing to send your darling work out to somebody else, especially when you know it's not finished. I sent out my novel, The Art of Letting Go to my lovely readers when I knew there were obvious major flaws in it, because I wanted to make sure I'd found the hidden flaws too, before I started re-working.

Using beta readers requires a thick-skin. You have to be able to take the knocks (and the compliments!) with good grace, or there's no point. You're not looking for an ego-boost, right? Only sending your novel MS to your spouse/mother/child because you know they'll think you're wonderful regardless, defeats the object. You don't need tonnes of readers (I used four for the draft of my novel, plus another couple with later drafts), but you do need more than one. And, most importantly, you have to be discerning about their advice. Not everything they say is right! If you've weighed up what they've said carefully and you really don't agree with one of them, ignore that particular point - it's your story!

Beta/husband, Paul, with one of my manuscripts.
I rarely use another writer as a beta reader*. Sometimes it can be great to have the advice of a writer, but usually I prefer to use readers instead. People I trust. I've imposed on many wonderful friends over the last few years, but the stalwarts of my beta team are my husband Paul and my friend Jenny. It's rare for me to submit anything without it passing by one or both of these people. Neither of them are writers (although Paul blogs about clever computery stuff, and Jenny about chickens!), but they are both readers and very tactful!

Using regular readers is a special privilege. Not only because it's rare to find somebody that patient, but also because there is more insight to be gained from somebody who knows where you came from. Not only have Paul and Jenny discovered over the last few years what I need to know when I'm analysing a draft, but they can also compare my current work to past work. They know it does me no favours to flatter me, and they also know that a genuine compliment can make all the difference. Three cheers for my beta readers!

Do you use beta readers? Or have you been a beta reader yourself? What are the best and worst parts of your experiences? (Not every beta experience I've had has been as good as some of the others, but I've never had an actually bad experience, so if you have - share it!)

On an unrelated note, my friend Suzi produces regular blog posts asking a group of writers what they think on certain subjects. I'm honoured to be in her current crop of writers and the first post is up today! Go take a look!

*A beta reader is different from a critique partner, who should be another writer. CPs are the people you swap work with in order to help each other improve the technical aspects of your writing and./or when you want specific help with editing or solving a particular problem with your work.

08 February, 2013

The Ideal Reader

Do you have an ideal reader? When you're writing (or doing something else creative) do you have a specific audience in mind who you want to impress/move to tears/have howling with laughter more than anything?

Some writers have an imaginary ideal reader before they start writing. This reader is essentially the target audience. The writer can probably tell you everything about them. Perhaps she is a 30-something woman with a couple of kids, who has a hectic life and reads a book before bed in order to unwind. She therefore likes plots that are easy to follow, with everyday characters, but with themes which challenge and move her. If you're this type of writer, this is fabulous! Knowing your target market is crucial to getting an agent or publisher (or indeed, marketing your own book). A query letter that says "this book would appeal to men and women of all ages" doesn't fill an agent's heart with joy. They'll assume you don't know your audience.

I'm not really one of those writers. With my first novel, The Art of Letting Go, I wrote the book I wanted to write and then desperately tried to figure out the target market. Not a very professional approach! However, sometimes when I'm writing, somebody real will come to mind who I think will like, or be intrigued by what I'm trying to do. With The Art of Letting Go, I couldn't stop imagining my eldest sibling reading it, and in very subtle ways that shaped the novel as it progressed. I've found similar things with various other people while writing short stories too. Sometimes it can be a subject matter that will interest them, other times it's just a feeling about the style or the themes behind the plot. The major drawback of having real ideal readers, is that one day you might well find out whether or not they actually do like your book. Then they might prove to be less than ideal after all!

An ideal reader is the writer's equivalent to an imaginary friend.They are the people you can imagine reading your work and finding it fabulous. Imaginary friends don't get bored, point out typos before they've pointed out how scintillating your prose is, or say they prefer a Mills and Boon. Most importantly, they keep a writer conscious of the fact they are writing to be read. Unless your work is entirely private, a connection to your future readers is essential.

Who's your ideal reader?

05 February, 2013

Publishing Proposal

Am I ready for my publishing audition?
For the last couple or weeks I've been working on the publishing proposal for my novel, The Art of Letting Go. I've never approached a publishing house before, so the skill of proposal writing was a new one to me. For those, like me, who have not been intiated into this area of writing, a publishing proposal is a cross between a business plan and an audition. It's the document you, or (more realistically) your agent, sends to editors of publishing houses to persuade them they need to sign you up right away.

The publishing proposal contains several elements. (I appreciate smaller/indie publishers etc. probably do things differently, as do other countries - hello my American friends! - but this is roughly how it goes for an agented author approaching a UK publisher).
  • a full plot synopsis in one or two pages
  • an author profile about the writer and their writing
  • a list of books published in the last few years which are comparable to the manuscript in question (and which preferably have been bestsellers!)
  • a discussion of marketing opportunities
  • detailed chapter synopses
  • the sample chapters of the manuscript
A few people have asked me whether this isn't the agent's job. Perhaps that's an understandable question, but it's equivalent to asking whether it should be an actor's agent's job to do their auditions for them! Agents are heavily involved with guiding a writer through the publishing proposal, ensuring it's the best it can be, but it is very much the writer's job to do, well, the writing!

I have to admit I've struggled a bit with this. I enjoyed the chapter synopses, because all writers know the frustration of writing the full synopsis - distilling 90 000 words of plot into a 500 word summary - and so it was nice to be able to put a bit more detail on the bones. I quite like writing synopses - it's the scientist in me, used to writing abstracts! - but it can be disheartening to reduce your lovingly-crafted prose into bland facts that always seem to make your book sound dull. David (my agent) has sent me away to re-write my full synopsis, which has led to a marked increase in chocolate consumption in my writing room, and we're still debating how many sample chapters to send (my chapters are very short), but the area I've struggled with most has been marketing. I'm really not sure what to say. Arrange an all-expenses paid book tour of the UK and I promise to be good and smile nicely at people? Hmmmm...

Being ready to approach publishers is tantalisingly close now. The fear of not getting a publishing deal (statistically quite likely) hasn't hit home yet, so I'm merely impatient to get it going! It'd be great to have it sent out by the time my three month agent-iversary comes round (I accepted the offer on the 19th November - two weeks to go!), but perhaps I'm being naive.

In the meantime, I've stopped dithering and thinking of other things I could be doing and have written the opening pages to my next novel, with the working title, Derailed. Great to be creating something new at last!

Have you had any experience of marketing to share with me?  Do you like synopses or loathe them?