Twelve things a good writing group should give you.

Hat-tip the Big Green Bookshop Writing Group

Company. Writing is often lonely, and non-writers don’t always understand.  Attending a group gives the sense of shared endeavor , a place to vent your frustrations, and a place to share little triumphs that non-writers may not get.  It should be enjoyable!

Welcome.  People are interested in you and what you are reading and writing.  They explain the rules, introduce themselves by name and try to remember yours.  They make it clear that socialising afterwards is open to all.

Generosity of spirit.  Good groups are open to new people, new ideas, and new approaches.  Your personal goals are respected. They applaud your successes and mourn your disappointments.  They encourage you back on the horse.  In time, individuals offer to read your novel in draft, they sometimes drop you a line suggesting a helpful blogpost.

A safe space.  They accept who you are and where you come from, and within any publicly stated terms of reference, support you in terms of what you want to read.  They have clear rules on what is appropriate to share when.  If you are wanting to read sexual violence, torture, etc, ask the facilitator first beforehand. I can close my eyes in the cinema, and mute the sound on TV.  I can put down a book which goes darkly violent.  In a reading, you can’t moderate the material.

Some group discipline.  There is clear facilitating AND the group understands the boundaries.  Quieter voices are heard, discussion is focused but not military, friendly but not meandering.

It’s kind about how things are said, but honest about what is said.  

Critical skills. A good group encourages you to read and listen to other people’s stuff and develop your own critical abilities.  It is often easier to see and understand strengths and weaknesses in other people’s work, before realising the relevance to yourself.  It should encourage you to learn from reading published work.

Both valid and invalid criticism!  Hearing criticism of your work is hard to take.  Being a writer will mean criticism before, during and after the publication process. (If you didn’t like reading to a group, oh boy, wait until you get edited!)  I strongly believe you need not to defend the work line by line, you need to learn the art of taking in the comments, processing them, and deciding if they are valid/helpful.  Anyone who cannot take in criticism and learn what to do with it, won’t progress as a writer.  You need elephant ears but a rhino hide.

Focused feedback.  Criticism should be primarily about the craft of the work – factual accuracy should be flagged briefly for the author to check outside the meeting.  Don’t suggest making the main character a vampire or writing it in iambic pentameter, unless the author clearly signalled they wanted radical suggestions.

Accountability. A good group encourages you to keep writing, it will understand those periods when you are blocked or unhappy, but it will kindly push you in the right way.  Not every writer improves with practice, but no writer can improve without it.

A quest for competence.  The group share news about where you can hear industry professionals speak, they try to get that writer or that agent to come to a meeting.  They share what courses and books did for them.  They understand you can read too much advice and not do enough writing.

A mix of knowledge.  For Our Child of the Stars, I got to try out early chapters on men and women, on British people and Americans, on parents and non-parents, on people who have been in love with science fiction forever, and people who avoid it.

 

The thirteen point is perhaps a good method.  That’s a contentious matter for another post.

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All I want for Christmas…

Well, working on the Second Book, of which more later. I am at the stage of looking a vast pile of words which I am now looking to see if it is a polished train of narrative or just a heap of rusty wreckage.  This is an interesting point in the process.

I am in a Debut Authors group, which by the way of things is mostly full of Lovely Americans. Lovely Americans are lovely. Wouldn’t it be good if I got a US+Canada deal for Our Child of the Stars…

Being a debut author is interesting. The Quercus publishers team are working hard. Two months from Official Hardback Publication and you know, launches, articles, blogposts to write.  All of which is less stress than writing the second book.

Online reviews have been supportive and insightful.  I just need as ever the entire world to see buy the book, like it, and review it.

And to write the second book, so signing off now.

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How to help any new author

There are five easy things you can do to help an author that require no specific training or equipment.

Please buy and read the book! The main thing the author wants is for you to enjoy it.

Feel free to buy it as a print book, an e-book, or an audio-book. A smart author wants all readers.

If you like it, please, please talk about it – online and face to face.  Personal recommendations count.  If you’re a social media person, you know what to do.  You can help authors you like.

Please think about rating and reviewing on Amazon and Goodreads.  It’s easy – giving a star rating takes less than a minute.  Reviews do help readers decide; also, more reviews make the book more visible online.  A review never has to be an English Literature essay.  A few quick lines would be great.

Libraries and charity shops serve the broader purpose of promoting literacy. Most authors use them and encourage them.

Here are five things NOT to do when an author has a book out

Please don’t worry if you haven’t time or energy.

Don’t send bad reviews.  They’ve seen it.  You’re rubbing their face in it.

Don’t tell them their book is not being stocked in any particular shop. No shop can stock more than a minority of titles, and 99% of the time there is nothing the author can do.

Don’t be rude to booksellers or anyone else; don’t move their books in the shop.

Forget to buy it.

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More about Our Child of the Stars

A lost child, the family who try to protect him and the secret that refuses to stay hidden . . .

Molly and Gene Myers were happy, until tragedy blighted their hopes of children. During the years of darkness and despair, they each put their marriage in jeopardy, but now they are starting to rebuild their fragile bond.

This is the year of Woodstock and the moon landings; war is raging in Vietnam and the superpowers are threatening each other with annihilation.

Then the Meteor crashes into Amber Grove, devastating the small New England town – and changing their lives for ever. Molly, a nurse, caught up in the thick of the disaster, is given care of a desperately ill patient rescued from the wreckage: a sick boy with a remarkable appearance, an orphan who needs a mother.

And soon the whole world will be looking for him.

Cory’s arrival has changed everything. And the Myers will do anything to keep him safe.

A remarkable story of warmth, tenacity and generosity of spirit, set against the backdrop of a fast-changing, terrifying decade.

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Pompous letter to Society of Authors magazine

Our hero got annoyed at articles in the SoA magazine referring to wooden books as ‘real books’.  They published this…

Those of us who wish to write in the new reality should distinguish between personal taste and a universal moral law.  Printed books, e-books, and audiobooks are all ‘books’.

I like the physicality of a printed book, and of browsing a bookshop.  I read a lot on computer screens for my day-job and I don’t enjoy novels on a Kindle. I think I skim more on screen [1].  I loathe the idea that, like my daughter, I should read novels on a smartphone.  I don’t listen to audiobooks.  As a reader, I have a preference.

However, as a writer, I wish to get my story into the heads of the reader without dilution or intermediary.  All these means of delivering a story are fine by me.  I have no intention of lecturing complete strangers with different tastes, if they will buy and consume my book.

Those who like the cheaper e-book are in my experience, prolific readers and given to online reviews and discussion of the books they read. 

I suggest the Society of Authors adopt a house-style under which ‘books’ refers to any of these delivery methods, and then run a competition for the best term for the traditional version.  I vote for ‘dead tree books’, which to be clear, are one of the truest loves of my life.

The Society of Authors offers excellent advice and support, grants and networks.  It’s a bone fide trade union for authors.

[1] I think I skim more reading novels on screen.  I edit my books on screen and I am not sure I notice the same effect

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The Seven Deadly Habits of Ineffective Writing Groups

Even a terrible writing group can spur you to write more.  But having sampled many groups over the years, here are some real problem areas.  Even a good group can drift into these problems from time to time.

(tongue in cheek)

Unwillingness to be critical.  You could read the telephone directory and get a chorus of ‘Oh, that’s lovely.’  If people won’t or can’t give constructive feedback, just buy a dog instead.   Dogs give unconditional approval and you can think about story ideas when walking them.

Ignorance.  The one person who sold a short story once (to Wee Scottish Fluff) dominates discussion of the market, even when they are wildly wrong.   There’s uncritical recycling of unattributed stuff. Spreading myths about writing, agenting, self-publishing when clear, reliable and disinterested information is available.

Lack of ambition.  No-one talks about personal goals, or cares if you are meeting yours.  After a while you realise people don’t act on feedback.  But ambition should be personally decided and owned.  To me, ‘I just want to finish this memoir for my grandkids’ is as worthy an ambition as ‘I want to win the Booker.’

Poor discipline.  The loudest voice dominates.  People are interrupted. The first to leap in sets the tone of the subsequent discussion, no matter how ill-considered their comments.  People talk about the content of the writing, not the writing.

Brutality.  People are destructive, personal, and unpleasant in their comments.  Maybe they are frightened of new people, or worried other people are better than they are, or they are just horrible people.  They don’t understand the difference between ‘I’m sorry, for me this paragraph came across as racist’ – about the writing -and ‘You are a racist’.

Mine is the One True Way-ism. People should offer freely what worked for them and what didn’t, but step back if you are doing it differently.  In turn, be open minded about what they say works for them.

Unsafe.  Some groups are bigoted, or unwilling to protect individuals from inappropriate comments or readings.  The group has no clear rules about what can be read, and any necessary warnings.  Your working assumption must be if you read about sexual violence, at least one person in the room has direct personal experience. In here I throw the usual unfortunate dynamics: men talk more than women, and interrupt more.  Regulars may dominate newcomers.

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Salvaged from the Agent’s Slushpile

The Bookseller refers to a recent debut as ‘salvaged from agent […] ‘s slushpile.’

Every trade paper develops a slang, a jocular shorthand.  But to refer to the process of getting an agent as being ‘salvaged’ is a little harsh.  I am worried it might confuse people who want to get a traditional publishing deal.

An agent works for you.    They try to secure a deal with a publisher (or a series of deals regarding overseas, film, etc.)  They get paid only if you get paid, so they obviously have to be picky who they represent.

Most people who try to get an agent don’t succeed, certainly not on the first book they submit.  But when an agent does sign a debut author, the ‘slushpile’ – unsolicited contributions from people the agent doesn’t know – is a major way they find talent++.  JK Rowling was ‘salvaged from the slushpile’.

An agent usually advertises as being open for business, or not.  Therefore, if you send them your novel as a submission, when they are open, and if they represent that type of book, you are literally doing something they have asked for.

Since the arrival of The Internet, what an agent wants and who else they represent is usually findable online.

Typically, British agents ask for a short letter, a synopsis, and three chapters.  Anecdotally the majority of submissions to agents are doomed to fail.  They fall into one or all of the following errors: the agent is not currently taking submissions, the agent does not represent this type of book at the moment (or ever), or the submission is not what they ask for on their website.  And many of the books that are left are somewhere between dreadful and not at all bad but not quite there.

Given this, I understand why agents call submissions slush, but it might be better called the crude ore from which the agent will find their next nugget of pure gold.

So, in my case I sent my first novel to a dozen agents and got nothing back but a little useful feedback.  Rather than revise that book to the degree it clearly required, I finished the second, Our Child of the Stars.  I sent to a dozen or so agents, one of whom, Rob Dinsdale, told me he was closed.  (His website was down so I’m not apologising.)  Now, living in London, I had been to events and talked to a few live agents, but there are events outside London.  I participated in #askagent on twitter.  One agent advertises that she takes questions via email, so I asked her a question.  This was all mostly to make sure I understood the process.

Wow, a well-known agent, who I had met socially, asked for the entire manuscript.  I chased everyone who hadn’t actually said no, including Rob, who also asked for the full, loved it, and offered me representation.  We talked through what his vision was for the book, which matters.  I shook hands, and he got me a two-book deal with Jo Fletcher Books. (There’s quite a lot of work hidden in that last sentence.)

Lessons:

You can get an agent through ‘the slushpile’, aged over fifty with sum previous publications experience, three short stories in US SFF mags, and no high profile social media presence.

I hadn’t met Rob, and I hadn’t sent him the first novel.

How the industry works is probably more obvious now than it ever has been.  Meeting agents helps understand the process, but they will make the decision based on the book – and whether you share a vision for it.  That’s code for, if they have editorial suggestions, will you work with them on it?

Being polite, researching the process and having a great book mattered.

There are all sorts of things that are unfair, and that’s for another post.  But the point about submissions to the slushpile – one can hope this is the process LEAST open to favouritism, old boy networks, etc.

There are also alternatives to traditional publishing deals secured through an agent.  Some publishers take direct submissions.  Self-publishing is a viable and honorable route.  There are crowd-funding options etc.

 

Edited to add.  Some weeks later I saw two agents talking on Twitter.  One said all but two of her fiction clients came through the slushpile.  The other said 80%.  Of course, mileage can vary.

 

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Writing process: like a demented Muppet

Kermit types fast
Kermit types fast

I noticed this exchange on Twitter (26 Feb 2018)

Writing a novel without some kind of a plan is like building a house on quicksand. It is so much harder to fix structural problems at the end of a draft than it is in the development stage.
Well known literary agent Jonny Geller

I don’t agree at all. Structure is a superficial feature of narrative. You can change it whenever you like. What’s truly fundamental is tone. You do need a plan, but the best sequence is–write first, then plan. Then edit with confidence, knowing what you’ve got.
Fantasy superstar Philip Pullman

Here’s the point about writing advice.  I’ve learned to be cautious about dogma, because people are fond of saying what that works for them – their brain, their way of thinking – should be universal advice.

Lots of people extol ‘Write every day!’  That’s a great discipline if you can manage it, and for some people the only way to get the time.  To be honest, a day of writing and doing nothing else (or two half days) works better for me than seven individual hours on seven different days.  (Think about it every day if you can.)

Dogma merchants love the mechanics of writing.  Some people handwrite their books in elegant notebooks with a fountain pen they bought at Harrods.  Others hammer their old computer like a demented Muppet.  Which is right?

I think it depends how you put words together.  Some people painfully assemble their sentences like an old watchmaker.  They write slowly – add a comma here?  Oooh, tricky!   What comes out is serviceable.  Bit by bit they build the work. So handwriting is fine.

I’m more Kermit thumping out the words on my laptop, to see how the scene works, or whether this approach is too obtuse.  I write quick and messy, knowing I will have to go over it again and again.  I honestly think I need to write 10,000 words of a major character before I’m clear if they are working.  To be forced to handwrite would be unbelievably frustrating.  It would be like telling a ‘watchmaking’ writer to write with their feet.  I accept the price of this method: writing stuff you change later, deciding an approach is not working, writing stuff you decide to cut.

When it comes to a significant review and edit, I change the font and print it out, and mark it up on paper. This is a deliberate attempt to make the work feel like someone else’s.

Plot or pants?  Plan the work or write by the seat of your pants?   See the two esteemed figures above.  Brian Aldiss claimed to plan books down to paragraph level before he started writing.  Stephen King starts with a situation and sees what happens.

I’m more King than Aldiss.   However, starting a book without a clear understanding of the final place the characters must end is very dangerous.  People don’t forgive poor endings.  Where your characters start and end, the challenge they face and the change that happens, is the arc of the book.  Starting without this is setting sail in the dark and hoping to find an island which might not be there.  I must start knowing an ending, so in one sense I plot.

What is the narrative question, asked early in the book, guiding the book throughout, and answered at the end?  Should Hamlet kill his wicked uncle?  Can Iago destroy Othello by his lies?  Will Romeo and Juliet live happy ever after?

Stravinsky said, ‘The magic happens at the keyboard.’   Writing deepens understanding of the characters, brings out themes, helps you understand this new idea is a better challenge than the old one.  I’m also terrified that a detailed plan will remove the impetus to write the damn thing, just as telling someone a short story idea often stops me writing the story.

I start with a rough idea of what will happen, a one side plan.  I write a lot, and it makes me reconsider the plan.  Sometimes I pause a good way in and redo the plan.  But the plan is the servant not the master.

Is any of this useful or got any thoughts?  Let me know!  This article was a suggestion from a newsletter follower, so subscribe and ask!

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Backstage: Editing A Book is Not Ruining It

I’m due to get my latest set of edits soon.  When I signed with Jo my editor for Our Child in the Stars, I knew from day one that she would want three broad things.

  • A developmental edit, which suggests changes to the structure and tone of the book at a para, line, scene, page, chapter level – character, setting, stylistic choices all up for comment – phew;
  • When that’s done, a copy or line edit, which literally goes through the book line by line saying delete this, unnecessary repetition – phew;
  • and finally, proof-reading, which a fresh set of eyes takes on, checking again eg grammar and consistency about italics etc.

[Added: of course these phases are not rigidly separate.  Things occur to editor and author in the discussions.]

Typewriter sends pages flying into air
Editing can feel like…

No surprise that people have said things like, ‘Won’t this ruin the book?’  ‘Will it still be your book?’

The core thing is that my editor and I share a vision for the book.  What Jo is doing is helping make it happen.  Following untold years in the book mines, her experience helps shape delivering the story well (pace and structure), dialling things up where needed, bringing things out.  If we did not share a vision, then the discussions would be short.

So, ‘There is too much warm family stuff’ is not a line I could work with.  ‘This bit could be faster’, I could.

Imagine you write and direct an amateur play.  You plan to put it on, at your own expense in the local Scout Hut.  Local rehearsals go well, your friends are impressed.  Then an impresario is given a copy, and they want to pay you to put it on.  Bigger theatre, bigger budget, paying the actors, the stamp of success.  How exciting!

That impresario likes it, they really do, they read hundreds of plays before picking this one.  But they have put on the odd play or thirty before, and they know what works.  They will come back with a string of points.  All that comic stuff in Act Two slows the pace and reduces the drama.  Do you need both the heroine’s brothers?  They seem very samey, and it’s boring when they talk to each other.  You need to work on the final speech, which seems to cut across the theme.  The set design is very bland.  Is there a reason the period is so vague?

Some of this is so obviously right you nod.  Some of this might be very challenging.  You had some clear ideas right back at the beginning you might need to give up on.  Some comments you vow you will agree to only over your dead body.  Some involves looking up the first draft again and getting out bits you’d abandoned.

Your initial response might be to Google ‘How much assassinate theatre person London?’  Or that it would take a year to do all that, so the play is doomed.  But you remember that Shakespeare probably had the same thing, and less time to do it in.

So, you muse on it all.  Somewhere, some of the more critical points start to strike you as having the ring of truth.  The editor’s suggested cuts in Act Two miss the mark, but you realise a much better way of addressing her concerns.  You find you don’t care that much about one brother or two, and just roll over on that.  The finale speech is really important, you will need to discuss what she means further.  If she didn’t understand… that means you need to flag the theme up even stronger and earlier in the play.   And she’s just factually wrong on Norfolk sheep farming.

You see the point.  Of course, in a play, the actors are important co-creators, as is the director, the designer and a host of other people.  A book comes down to you and the editor.

What you end up with, you both hope, is a work which delivers in the real world the characters, story and themes of your play/book, but more effectively.  So, during the edit, there will be cursing, but you are working with a professional who after all, is investing time and money your book’s success.  To stretch another metaphor, it’s like a marriage.  If you ask ‘who is winning’ the relationship is in trouble.  The book ought to be winning, and the readers.

An agent tweeted recently that editing was ‘enjoyable’.  I’d say it’s more like doing a run for charity.  Some of the training, some of the post training, the run itself, the aftermath – some of this is enjoyable.  Some bits aren’t, some bits involve sweating and swearing, but you know you need to see those through to do what you want to achieve.

All these books were edited…
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Backstage: Why does publishing take so flipping long?

Everyone is astonished that a book accepted in Summer 2017 won’t be out until Feb 2019.  And I’ll be honest, I gulped.  Naively, I was hoping Our Child of the Stars would be out for summer or autumn 2018.

Reason 1: traditional publishing takes time.  If I was self-publishing, you’d be reading it now.

Reason 2: most books in the UK are sold ‘for Christmas’ and ‘for the beach’.  Tons of books are published to grab the shelves for those times.  October 5th, 2017 was this year’s Super Thursday, the day the largest number of titles hit UK shelves.  505 new books were published in that one week.  I mean, Jo Fletcher Books could launch a debut novel, a bit unusual, into a Hurricane Pullman of new books.  That might work.  Better chance for a quirky debut they don’t.

Reason 3: they really like the book.  But editors don’t buy a book and say, it’s fine, we can go straight to copy editing.  They bring their own commercial and artistic insight to it.  It needs some work – not massive but not inconsequential.  And it’s not, wouldn’t the trousers in chapter six be better blue.  Or change that character’s name.  It’s more like, bring this up, bring this down, I need to believe this character would do this.  When that’s right, there’s copyediting – real dots and commas – then proofing.  I will do a piece on Editing is not Ruining.

Reason 4: Covers.  People judge books by their cover.  It sells you the book before you even pick it up.  The wonderful draft design I saw really gives the feel of the book – the hope, the wonder, the beauty and the tinge of danger and darkness.  All that without spoilers. Publishers must factor time to get the cover right, and they need the cover right long before you see the book, to sell into the trade and to talk to foreign markets.

In short, they think the book will do better with more time.  They’re paying.  And as they cheerfully say, ‘You’ll never get this much time with a book in future.’   No pressure there.

The good news is that some lucky people do get to see it a lot earlier, when advanced copies become ready.  That’s for another time, but a very good reason to subscribe to my newsletter.

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