Ghostwriting 101, why I write and a brief blog hiatus

alli ghostingI’m sneaking away from the internet for a brief period so there won’t be any posts for a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, as if by magic timing, a couple of guest posts are setting sail.

First there’s a swift guide to becoming a ghostwriter. Debbie Young, chief blogatrix at the Alliance of Independent Authors, asked me for a starter piece for writers who might be interested in ghostwriting as a career move. It’s something I’m forever asked about, and if you’ve hung around this blog for a while the advice won’t be new to you. But otherwise, step this way.

writers of the worldSecondly, I was contacted by Warren Adler, author of Wars of The Roses (yes, THAT Wars of the Roses), who’d seen me loitering on Twitter and wanted to include me in a showcase on his website, called Writers of the World. The brief was exacting – 150ish words on why I write. Of course, I could give him a complete dossier, and while I tried to super-condense my million-or-so favourite reasons, I ended up with a post about the power of why in storytelling. But I eventually completed my assignment and it’s here.

So I’ll be back in a couple of weeks, with posts and Undercover Soundtracks. In the meantime I’ve cued up a selection of useful tweets to keep your writing at a healthy bubble. See you soon.

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‘An earworm of the heart’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Katharine Grant

for logoMy guest this week says she would like to be able to play the piano to concert standard, but since she can’t, she uses words as her instrument of enthrallment. Pianos are central to the plot of her latest novel, a historical romance in which four nouveau riche fathers attempt to marry off their daughters by displaying their talents in a music recital. Mayhem ensues, con brio. She says her musical ear guides her writing; Bach helps her to listen to the cadence of words and Purcell reminds her, in the most emotional way, that writing is all about remembering. (Are you guessing that Dido’s Lament might be coming up?) She is Royal Literary Fund Fellow Katharine Grant and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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American English, British English, Canadian English… which to use for your book?

w&alogotomayto tomato what brand of English should you useYesterday I spoke at the Writers & Artists self-publishing conference, and one of the attendees raised this subject… which led to an interesting debate.

First of all, does it matter if your editor is American, British, Canadian, Australian, or any other flavour of English?

Not for developmental editing, because that’s about the substance of the book. The editor won’t be recommending line corrections or studying your phrasing or grammar (although they might remark on it).

But in copy editing and proofreading, your use of language will be under scrutiny. That’s where you need an editor in tune with your territory. (Here’s a post on the different editorial processes and the order to do them.)

You say tomayto…

In case you’re wondering, there is far more difference than spellings and vocab. I’m a thoroughly Brit speaker, and I couldn’t copy-edit or proof a US book. Or an Australian book. Each territory has its own grammar, usage and punctuation. When I read a blog or book by an American that I know has immaculate language, my red pen itches.

Which of the Englishes to choose for your book?

If you’re from the UK, should you make a separate edition for the US … and others?

If you’ve been traditionally published, you might know that separate editions are made for each territory, and the books are usually re-edited for local ears. (Indeed, the rights may be sold to completely different publishers.)

Sometimes this goes beyond spelling and language use. The title might be changed; English locations and environments might be changed, all to be more appealing to the market. I worked on a book that was changed significantly for America because it took place in an English school. The rewrite replaced cricket with baseball and other details to make it less foreign for US readers. (Usually I’d find that irritating. Surely kids know that pavements are sidewalks and bonnets are hoods, right? But the publisher had a good artistic reason; the book was about a demon trapped in an ordinary school, and the humour worked because everything else was absolutely familiar.)

In indie publishing, the platforms are set up so that your edition goes worldwide. On KDP you can exclude territories, but I don’t think you can on Smashwords and other platforms – which makes it difficult to produce separate editions. Indeed, I don’t know any indies who do this because they’d lose certain advantages such as cross-linking of reviews.

So indies have to choose their variety of English and stick to it. Some authors change the spellings to American but keep everything else UK. They use American brand names too – one conference attendee cited the example of paracetamol, and how Americans are confused if you don’t call it Tylenol. For me, mixing the Englishes is too weird for my pedantic editor brain, so I stick to Brit.

How much do readers mind?

There was an interesting response from other speakers.

Mel Sherratt (@WriterMels), who writes crime thrillers, said when she first published she was appalled to find reviews on Amazon US that complained her book was full of errors. Digging further, she found this was a response to her UK English. But other readers said they enjoyed the distinctive English flavour, which was appropriate to her setting, so she decided that Englishness was part of her signature.

Paul Pilkington (@PaulPilkington), who writes suspense mystery, said he’d also had remarks from American readers. so he puts a note in the front matter, explaining that his books use UK conventions.

With my own novels, I have more reviews from US than UK readers. No one’s ever complained about the pronounced Brit flavour. Nail Your Novel fared a little differently, but not significantly so. In about 150 reviews for book 1, I had one reader who mistook the UK English for errors. I actually did the unwise thing of replying to the review – don’t do this at home – and asked for examples. When I pointed out that they were all sanctioned by the Oxford English Dictionary, he removed the review. (As I said, tackling negative reviews is usually a hiding to nothing, but I think it’s justified where your competence is being questioned for a dumb reason.)
Thanks for the tomato pic epSOS on Flickr

Clearly, some categories of reader will be more forgiving than others of a non-US usage. We’ll all have our own comfort levels and solutions, and it would be interesting to discuss further. What brand of English do you use? Do you make concessions to other territories? Have you ever had negative reviews based on this and did it make you take action? Let’s discuss!

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‘Tearing open the doors of the heart’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Michael Golding

for logoMy guest this week says he needs silence to write, but not necessarily aural silence. Instead he seeks what he calls a ‘silence of the mind’, a cessation of chaos, so that he can tune his senses to his novel’s world and the feelings of his characters. Music by Bach and Joni Mitchell, among others, prepare the way for his latest novel – the story of a boy born in thirteenth-century Persia with four ears instead of two, and his path towards spiritual awakening and love. Stop by the Red Blog to meet literary novelist Michael Golding, and the Undercover Soundtrack for A Poet of the Invisible World.

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The gallop draft: 5 smart tips for writing a useful draft at speed

gallop draftNovember is when web-aware writers get their speed boots on; NaNoWriMo is afoot. We’ll see growing wordcounts reported around the tweetwires, in the forums and Facebook groups. I’ve never formally Nanoed, but I’m definitely a fan of the fast first draft. Here’s why.

It’s not just about speed for its own sake. It’s about harnessing all possible oomph from that initial ride of discovery with the characters. This draft is when we first make them speak and act instead of viewing them from a distance in note form. I’ve found a fast, intense blast is the best way to capture this in full vividness.

I’ve also learned what disrupts the flow – so here are five tips to keep the ideas coming.

1 Ignore the language. If the perfect wording comes to mind, fantastic. But my main aim is to write what I see, and that’s a scramble in itself. I just get it in the can. In any case, those scenes might be repurposed in edits, given to different characters, the roles may be swapped. Buffing the nuances would be a waste of time. So I don’t worry at all about whether my prose is fit to show around. I just hurl it onto the page.

2 Postpone the research. There are two kinds of facts you need for a novel.
1 The facts to check your story events are possible, or to find ingenious surprises from the special conditions of the story world. Usually we sort these out while we’re outlining.
2 Smaller details that arise while we’re writing the scene. Oh dear, you need to know what pall-bearers wear? No you don’t, because it doesn’t greatly affect what anyone will say or do. I scrawl a note in square brackets – [find out] – and continue to channel the action.

3 Don’t worry about factual consistency within the book – did this event happen on a Thursday, and was it twenty years ago? In most cases, you don’t need to sort your timeline out as you draft. Again, a short phrase in square brackets will allow you to flag it for later.

4 Or what characters look like. Eek, you’re writing your main character’s ex-lover for the first time. Or your main character. What do they look like? What’s it like to be in a room with them? If you haven’t already thought about this, you might grind to a halt, go squirreling off through Google, looking for actors who have the qualities that you’d like, or other things that help you visualise. But you don’t need to know this now. Write [what does he look like] and carry on as if you already know.

5 Or the beginning. You can’t know what the proper beginning of the book should be until you’ve polished the draft multiple times, so don’t fidget and dither about it now. Write a scene that roughly does the job – and you’re in.

Thanks for the lovely racehorse pic, Paul on Flickr

3nynsThere’s more about drafting tips, outlining, beginnings and describing characters in the Nail Your Novel books. And if you’re as partial to equines as I am, you might like this :)

Do you have any tips for smart drafting? How detailed are you about your first draft, and are there any tasks you leave until later?

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‘A cracked but steely song of survival and beauty’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Philip Miller

for logoMy guest this week is a poet and award-winning arts correspondent as well as a literary novelist. His novel is a reckoning with loss and a mystery involving a lost painting, and his musical companions range from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Boards of Canada. He describes BOC’s music as making you feel you might walk into a mirror or meet yourself – which is not only brilliant, it’s a fairly accurate manifesto for the unsettling journey of the book. Even more exciting, I noticed as I downloaded the cover image that the novel is endorsed by one of my favourite mischievously inventive writers, Alasdair Gray. Deep breath. Philip Miller is on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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Lesson learned from a critique group: ‘why’ is the magic question for storytellers

871748560_85366532a1_zThe year was 1992ish, and it was my first time at the critique class. A member read some uncertain opening chapters and asked the group for guidance on where to develop it next. One of the other members began to play the role of analyst and asked what statements he wanted to make with the story, and what answers and conclusions he wished to present.

I hadn’t been writing long, so I kept quiet. Even so, this line of questioning struck me as mistaken. Weren’t questions more potent in stories than answers and statements? And if you were going to present conclusions, or lead the reader to deduce them, didn’t you have to write the story to discover them?

Questions are everything for a creative writer, aren’t they? They are open doors. Possibilities. A beckoning finger; a calling voice. Questions are the very essence of mystery, which is the current of wonder that keeps most stories afloat. What will happen? Come and see.


By the way, I’m not supposed to be writing this. I should be finishing a piece on why I write, but it’s much easier to noodle around with something else. In considering ‘whys’, I’ve been diverted back to that college room, and questions about answers that should have been about questions. Especially the question ‘why’.

Some questions are better than others

Why ‘why’? Because there’s a hierarchy of questions. ‘What’, where’ and ‘how’ are important, because we must have events and cause and effect, but ‘why’ is the golden ticket. ‘What’, ‘where’ and ‘how’ are facts. ‘Why’ is emotions; the personal and individual urges that make us do interesting stuff; the forces that bend our judgement or make us take risks. ‘Why’ does not have a simple answer. It needs a story or a lifetime. It shows us the human condition; that one person is kind while another is vengeful, or one is fearful while another is forgiving. Indeed, the whodunit was perhaps misnamed; the real appeal is in whydunit.

Find your plot holes

‘Why’ is a magic bullet for the writing process too. Most plot holes can be diagnosed by conscientiously and relentlessly asking ‘why’. Why did the character do it? Why does this event matter? Why do the characters persist on their path if it’s causing such strife? If a plot event looks shaky or improbable but your gut says it fits, keep nibbling at why. (BTW, my characters book gives these concepts a thorough workout.)

I think that first session in the critique group taught me something valuable, even though it wasn’t my own work being discussed and I probably didn’t contribute a thing except super-concentrated facial expressions. For a storyteller, questions are more useful than answers.

Thanks for the pic Graeme Maclean

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a piece to finish. But do you have a particular lesson you remember from a critique group?

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‘Where words fail, music speaks’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Rhian Ivory (with help from Hans Christian Andersen)

for logoMy guest this week has written a novel with a dual timeline and an intriguing title that has more than a hint of fairytale – The Boy Who Drew The Future. She flitted past me on Twitter one day and I set off in pursuit, waving an example of The Undercover Soundtrack and hoping she’d find it appealing. Thankfully she did, and her piece describes the music that drew her into the hearts of her characters. One particularly memorable line is the phrase she used to describe Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings – a private and fragile piece, a place for learning secrets. The Boy Who Drew The Future is her fifth novel and she’s held a string of distinguished writing posts including a WoMentoring mentor, a Patron of Reading and National Trust Writer In Residence. She is Rhian Ivory and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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Real opportunity for indie authors who seek translators and foreign language editions

Place_des_ecritures_FigeacTranslated editions can be a great way to reach a wider audience. But they’re expensive and risky to fund yourself. A translator has to reinterpret and rewrite your book, and that level of expertise isn’t cheap.

Sharks and scammers abound, especially as it’s hard to evaluate the results. Then how do you get the translated edition proof read? How do you market in a language you don’t speak?

For years I’ve been exploring options to get my books translated but so far I’ve had false starts. I’ll share a few cautionary tales below. But the reason I’m writing this post is because Amazon Publishing has opened up an important new opportunity. Its imprint AmazonCrossing, which publishes works in translation, has announced it’s seeking submissions from rightsholders, including indie authors (apply here).

This would be a publishing deal, of course, so much depends on whether you’re a good fit for their market as they would be making a substantial investment. But I feel it’s a significant opportunity. Here’s why.

Indie translation options

Paying a translator

A quick question on Twitter produced the following figures. London literary agent Charlotte Seymour

Harvill Secker senior editor Alison Hennessey concurred

Those are hefty sums. There are no guarantees of sales afterwards. And how do you recognise whether the translation is worth the price? I googled ‘bad translations’ and found no shortage of horror stories and warnings, such as this site.

Author-translator partnerships

Several authors I know have formed partnerships to produce books. This requires trust and a long-term view, but can work if you know the right person. Joanna Penn is one pioneer here, with several experiences to share.


If you are signed with a literary agent, it’s worth having a conversation about your self-published titles to see if there are any markets worth approaching.

Here’s a beware, though. A few years ago, an author friend made a translation deal, through an agent who specialised in representing indie work to foreign markets. Hurrah, I thought, and contacted her. I received an offer – only it wasn’t. It was an invitation to pay for a spot in one of her ‘catalogues’ of indie books, which she would take around the trade fairs. There were several price tiers as well, with bronze, silver and gold service, according to how much effort she would put into sales. No thanks.


Babelcube is a community where authors can meet translators. You complete a profile describing your book, including a sample for translators to use as an audition, and wait to see who’s interested – like a dating site. What’s more, they provide the author-translator agreement and distribute to online retailers.

It seems like a smart answer to the problem, although you still have to find the foreign-language proofreading professionals. But some indie authors have been very happy with their Babelcube experience.

So I tried offering Nail Your Novel. Plenty of translators had a go at the sample, and I amassed a group of Facebook friends with good enough language skills to evaluate the results. Their responses were an eye opener.

Some of the applicants had made the kind of mistakes that commonly happened with Google Translate. Was that, indeed, what they were doing, running my book through an algorithm? Others had made accurate translations, but were too literal, or muddled up their tenses, or lacked the flair and positive spirit of the original book. Many of them had solid CVs, but were probably most competent in technical translation – not the kind of work where much of the message was in the writing voice. I withdrew Nail Your Novel from Babelcube.

And here I am

So you can probably see why I’m excited about AmazonCrossing (if you’re still unconvinced, here’s a post by Porter Anderson at Writer Unboxed ). At the moment they’re seeking fiction, so I’ve sent my two novels . Here’s the submissions link again . I’m guessing they will have a hurricane of entries, and many of us won’t be a good fit. So I’m sending my novels – with everything crossed.

Meanwhile, have you had any adventures, good or bad, with translations? Any tips or advice? Share them here

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Equality in publishing: gender is not the only agenda

4041668533_2d4daee55d_zRecently there has been much ado about gender inequality in publishing. In The Bookseller, Cathy Rentzenbrink wrote about two literary prizes whose shortlists were dominated by male authors, and argued this as the tip of a deeper rooted problem, which then became the subject of Porter Anderson’s Futurechat on Twitter.

Ms Rentzenbrink particularly drew attention to the fact that the Goldsmith competition aimed to celebrate fiction that is, in the words of its press release, ‘audacious and original’. As she said:

‘So that’s 18 books singled out for praise in the space of a week only one of which was written by a woman. Why is this? Are women incapable of writing audacious and original fiction? Not much cop at sharing their experience of the world?’

But something seems to have been missed as everyone joined the uproar. There it was in the Goldsmith prize rules, bold as brass. Self-published novels are not eligible. Check it for yourself.

self-published books are not eligible

(I can’t find a list of rules for the Samuel Johnson prize, which Ms Rentzenbrink also cited and accounts for her total of 18. Update: an enterprising commenter found a cached version. The Johnsons do not exclude self-published books, so no argument there.)

Gender lottery

Now, we’d probably all argue that the gender line-up in the final shortlist is most likely a matter of chance, not conspiracy. Ms Rentzenbrink felt it was a symptom of a wider attitude problem.

And I contend that this exclusion of self-published books is another.

Especially from a prize whose goal was to find ‘audacious and original’ fiction. Because they are more likely to find it from indie authors than from the output of traditional publishing.

But the crap, Roz

Now yes, some indie fiction is unripened. Inept. Hobby work. Personal therapy. All possible literary sins can be seen in self-publishing – but self-publishing is also where you find original, finely honed work that should have been on a publisher’s list if market economics allowed. (NB: anyone quoting this line had better include its full context or I will smite them with my hairdresser’s zombie homage to Ulysses.)

Ms Rentzenbrink’s discussion of gender is a call for equality and fair chances, to judge a book and a writer on merit and nothing else. So while the industry beats its breast about the gender thingy, it should also address the exclusion of independently published fiction. Double standards are rather unattractive, aren’t they?

Indeed, like Ms Rentzenbrink, I can show that this prejudice against self-published authors goes further than just a few competitions. Some quarters of the publishing world still dismiss it as vanity press. I’ve written in a recent blogpost about how the Royal Literary Fund dismisses applications from authors who are not ‘commercially published’, as they put it. (You might wonder about their imprecise use of the word ‘commercial’ here. I certainly did.)

I thoroughly support the upholding of standards. Crikey, that’s how we pull ourselves up from our first amateur efforts. But we need to ask how quality should be judged.

A spectrum view

This question will become increasingly significant in coming years. There will be many more authors releasing their books in new ways. ‘Totally self-published’ and ‘totally published’ will simply be opposite ends of a long spectrum. Indeed they already are.

There follows a brief diversion into details that may be familiar if you’ve known me for a while. I shall render it in brackets so that you may skip if you wish.

(Some of us authors are publishing professionals as well as writers. In my case, I ran an editorial department for three years and trained other editorial staff. I teach writers how to bring their novels up to publishable standard, and I’m rigorous about it. Ask any of my editing clients. Ask The Guardian. I am every bit as qualified to make good publishing decisions as, well, a traditional publisher. I treat my own work just as ruthlessly, as a matter of pride in my art and respect to the reader. Rant ends.)


In which I invent two new buzzwords

In the coming years, increasing numbers of significant books will be produced with these new models. This is an age of options.

So far, most of the discussions about successful self-publishers have concentrated on business. But fiction is an art too. Just as film has writer-directors and auteurs, and music has singer-songwriter-producers, we will see the self-published author who is characterised by a strong creative vision and artistic proficiency. Just as we’ve seen the rise of the author-entrepreneur, we will also see the rise of the author-director, the author-auteur.

Phew, I didn’t know I was going to write that. I might have invented a new monster.

Back to the Goldsmiths competition exclusion. We should be as committed to seriously tackling this issue, this blindspot, as we are to scrutinising gender prejudice. It has just as much potential to unfairly disadvantage authors whose work deserves critical recognition.

So what are the objections to including indie authors ?

There seems to be only one, really.

But the crap, Roz

Yes, there are so very many books.

Clearly there has to be a sensible method of triage for competitions, professional bodies etc. But here’s a suggestion. Judges and gatekeepers, you don’t have to read all of every book. You do as any sensible reader would – read the opening. Do the page 99 test. If that’s not good enough, no reader would continue. Throw it out. Pick up the next book. Then read the real contenders properly.

There’s nothing to be afraid of.

Thanks for the pics Dino Talic and Elliott Brown on Flickr

Or is there? What might I have missed? Let’s discuss.

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