Archive for category How to write a book

Do I want to make a career writing fiction? A conversation

I’ve had this interesting question on an email. It’s several questions, actually, and it raises points that I’ve seen many writers struggle with. To sum up, it’s this:

I’m hoping you can help me understand what it takes to make a career out of writing and whether it suits me.

Okay! Buckle in, chaps. Here’s the full version.

Pic from Wikimedia

I recently began wondering if I’m more of a hobbyist as a writer. I’m a short story/novella writer, wrote a lot of stories when I was young, and over the last several years began to think about writing to publish. I’ve had a lot of trouble with that— I’ve always suspected my stories are too old-fashioned or unusual for traditional publishing. I like the freedom in self-publishing, but I hate the idea of marketing.

This may seem like putting the cart before the horse, but if you don’t market your work, nobody will know it exists. It’s that simple.

And you will do the bulk of the marketing yourself, whether you self-publish or get a deal with a publisher. A publisher will market your book for a brief period while it launches, then they’ll probably stop, but the book will still be a piece of your heart and you’ll still want it to have the darndest best chance possible. And even while the publisher is pushing it, they’ll expect you to do a lot of marketing alongside theirs.

So if your work is to be read by others, marketing is unavoidable.

How do you learn the basics of marketing? Here’s a great book – How To Market A Book by Joanna Penn.

I simply don’t know that I could build a steady platform, as I have little interest in social media.

Social media are great, but they’re not the only tool for marketing. You can market your books by advertising – on Amazon and Facebook, and in paid newsletters.

But let’s talk about social media and websites. These are not necessarily a way to directly sell copies of your book. What they do is this – they make you more tangible to readers. You are more findable if somebody googles you. Even if you only have a placeholder description on Facebook or Twitter or wherever, it can direct readers to your website or to a platform you do actually use. Meanwhile the reader has learned you’re real, you are the person who wrote that book. Or those books.

A website is a necessity, I feel, to show readers what you’re about. It’s your home base. Social media platforms are places you can go to meet people. Ideally, you need both.

Yes, all this internet networking is time consuming. But it can also be fun and rewarding.

It has bonuses you may not have thought of. On social media you’ll meet other authors who’ll help you out with unexpected opportunities. And if you’re a shy person, as most writers are, social media make networking a doddle. In the old days, you built your professional network by going to writing groups or launch parties and hoping you’d get talking to someone useful. Or hoping you’d pluck up the courage to talk at all (that’s me). On social media, you can check somebody out before you talk to them, and there are no awkward silences. You just type.  

But I’ve also started losing interest in writing, after I began studying story structure and outlining. It really threw me off balance and I’m trying to get back to my more intuitive methods.

Is your muse killed by any sort of analysis? Some people do feel this.

Some authors write a spontaneous draft and edit heavily, thinking about structure and arcs once they’ve created the book as a free-flowing spirit.

But here’s a point – people who are aiming to write to a publishable standard will usually need to study craft. Although there’s loads you can learn with no outside input, you’ll have blind spots. Many of these are techniques and mechanisms you were never aware of – and with good reason, because they are not meant to be noticed by the reader. Structure is one of them.

And actually, when we discuss structure or any other point of craft, we’re actually seeking control of our work – to understand how we’re affecting the reader. 

If you’ll allow me, I’ll quote from the introduction to my plot book

When I talk about structure or form, I’m striving for tragedy, doom, comedy, romance, complexity, sadness, wonder… I’m interested in what does this and how.’

I do understand that analysis can seem to be deadening. But to people like me, it is also exciting and fascinating.  

‘It really threw me off balance… I’m trying to get back to my more intuitive methods…

New methods do! I wrote about this a while ago – the three ages of becoming a writer.  Stage 1 is easy, intuitive, natural. Stage 2, you feel you’re doing it all wrong, you don’t sound like yourself and the joy has gone. Stage 3, it begins to fall into place. You don’t think about rules, you write with a new awareness, an enhanced intuition.

So you might not be failing at all. You might be in Stage 2, looking for Stage 3.

I question the idea of publishing often, thinking about the effort and whether I have the motivation and drive to actually see my stories through to publication (whether self or traditional).

Some authors take their time to complete a book. I’m one of them! You’ll find numerous posts about that on this blog, but here’s a recent one – Seven Steps of a Long-Haul Novel. You can publish as slowly as you want, especially if you self-publish.

However, if you publish frequently, it’s easier to find and keep an audience because you always have new books to offer them. That makes marketing easier (and it’s also why publishers prefer writers who’ll put out a string of similar books). Otherwise, you’ll have to do other things to keep them connected to your creative world and to keep them interested in you. But… social media let you do that. Another method is blogs and newsletters.

As for motivation and drive, if you’re going to be an author, you need a completer-finisher mentality. First, in the creation of the manuscript – all books pose challenges and you need to be doggedly committed to meeting them. It also helps if you love editing your own work. Few novels come out perfect in the first draft. Writing a book is a long game, even if it’s a collection of short pieces. Personally, I relish the process of refining and honing, and I find the book creates its own momentum. I love the process of making it ready for readers, both the writing and the production. It’s creative and positive, with achievements all the way. You might find this too.  

I’m wondering if I just like writing as a hobby. In the writing world, there’s always the push to be seen as more than hobbyists (understandably, of course), so I’ve always felt pressure to publish. But I’m wondering if I only ever wrote stories for my own enjoyment, without much need for an audience.

There’s nothing wrong with writing just for you. I recently discussed this in a post How Much Does It Cost To Self-Publish – which deals with similar questions. The cost of self-publishing is related to your ambitions and there’s nothing wrong with publishing – or writing – on a modest scale simply because it fills you.

Here’s a parallel from my own life. I have a horse, who I enjoy training. I know a lot of other horse owners, and many of them compete. Some of them think you’re not riding properly if you and your horse don’t have a competitive career. I don’t give two hoots about this. My riding is between me and my horse, having adventures together, enjoying our connection. That might be like your writing – it’s you and the page, doing your thing. A private pleasure that does not have to be measured.

I don’t want to stop writing, but I’m at the point where I need to make a decision on what I want to do. I was hoping you could help me understand what it takes to actually make a career out of writing and whether it actually suits me.

Emily

Emily, you’ve already understood the basics, because the questions you’ve asked are spot on. Yes, publishing is a separate undertaking from writing. But before you feel daunted, let’s see if I can help you feel inspired, because some of these elements may not be as bad as you think.

In summary:

1 Yes, you need professional-level writing skills. It’s usually not possible to reach this standard without studying craft, dissecting how books work and getting professional feedback. But if one way of learning doesn’t suit you, there are hundreds of others, all heading for the same place – increasing your control over your material, and over the reader’s experience.

2 Yes, you need to market your work and yourself as a writer. Many authors, actually, dislike the idea of marketing. Especially the concept of self-promotion, which sounds obnoxious and embarrassing. I find it helps to think of doing your best for your work. Giving it the chance it deserves. You are the finest ambassador for your books – this is particularly true of authors who are, as you said yourself, too old-fashioned or unusual for traditional publishing. You might hate the idea of being an ambassador for your work; or you might find this is a liberating idea – you are your work’s embodiment and spokesperson, inviting readers to take a rich journey with you. That’s why we work on any idea – because we feel we’ll make something worth sharing. And this is where point 1 is important. If we’ve done the work on our craft, we know we have something we’re confident to share. 

Here’s another post where I talk about the different ways we might view our writing.

But think. Just because writing can be a career doesn’t mean it has to be. Take my example of horse riding. For me, the pressures of competing would ruin my pleasure. Moreover, there is nothing about competing that I want, even secretly. With my writing, though, I want very much for my work to find a readership, to be counted among other published work, and to build a career and reputation. This matters to me.

I ask you this: if you did not try for a writing career, would you feel you were missing something important that you would like to have? Or would you not feel like you were missing anything at all?

I’ve tried to show you that the issues you raise might not be as bad as you think, but I might well have confirmed the opposite. If so, writing as a personal pleasure is still a mighty fine and worthwhile thing.

What would you tell Emily? Let’s discuss!

If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Why should anybody read about your life? The 7 Ss for writing a memoir with universal appeal

I’ve recently been coaching a memoirist, and these are the key concepts we were musing about.

1 Struggles

Show the struggles. Many people are spurred to write a memoir because they overcame a great trouble, survived against the odds or scored a personal success. But that postive focus can steer you wrong if you write a memoir about it. A memoir is not about how well you did or the things you should be congratulated for. It’s not about showing off. A memoir is about how hard everything was – and also how hilarious, heartbreaking and heartwarming. But mostly, it’s about how hard it was. So show us that.

Actually, struggle is the point of most stories, whether fiction or non-fiction. A story isn’t just the ‘what’, it’s the ‘how’. While there might be a limited number of plots and whats, there are infinite ‘hows’. The ‘hows’ contain the vibrant, varied stuff of life, and strife. And difficulty, and challenge, and humanity. They are the story.

2 Strengths

Don’t focus exclusively on your strengths. They won’t make the reader root for you. If you show us how you successfully did something, the reader will think you found it easy. Especially if the success seems to come from a talent, or a birth circumstance, or a personality that is more courageous or rebellious than average. Your strengths are part of you, of course, and you’re right to be proud of them, but they don’t help the reader connect with you. But – reprising point 1 – struggle does make the reader connect. When we struggle, we are all in the same place – hopeless, lost, scared, angry, anxious, yearning, or making great sacrifices, or caught between several irreconcilable choices. That’s where we can all really talk to each other.  

3 Scenes

Some memoir manuscripts are dense screeds of narrative explanation. This can be dull to read. Memoirists often don’t realise they can give us ‘scenes’ as well, just as a novel would, where they describe actions and things people said.

‘I take it,’ they said, ‘that you speak good Spanish?’

 ‘Not one word,’ we said.

We all do this naturally in conversation anyway. And you can do it in memoir. Dramatising is good. Dialogue is good. Description and action are good too:

‘The judge turned to me and cocked a thick eyebrow…’

(Excerpts are from Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction.)

4 Structure and shape

Some memoir manuscripts are just a collection of anecdotes. No matter how interesting they are, the reader wants more. They seek a bigger structure and a shape, a beginning, middle and end. They want a reason why the story starts where it does, and why the end is the end (because it could go on through the rest of your life, couldn’t it?). The beginning won’t be your ‘I was born’ moment, either, or not always.

What about the stuff between the beginning and end? Aim for a sense of development, of things changing all the time. You’ll need turning points – which means you need an awareness of story structure. You might have seen screenwriters talk about the three-act structure – which, confusingly is actually four. Essentially, it’s where the reader starts to look for a bigger change, and it usually comes at the quarter marks of the book.

So at some point you should plan how the overall journey will work, the phases the book will go through. Look for distinct turning points, and massage the writing so they fall at the quarter points of the book. By three-quarters of the way through, the amount of struggle should be reaching its most significant point, with the biggest pressures. The final part of the book will be trying to establish a new order, ready for a new status quo. (There’s loads more about story structure here. )

Wait! Your story is real life. Some phases might have taken years. Others happened over a few hectic and traumatic days. How will it fit this pattern? Remember, you are not creating a day-by-day diary, you’re creating a ‘story’, which is an artistic construct. You are also adding – interpretation, emphasis, insight and context. Maybe including flashbacks for back story. All of this allows you to shorten or lengthen, in order to give the reader the best experience.

5 Significance

The reader wants significance. They want to feel your story is interesting and also universal. Whatever it starts with, whatever you do, a memoir isn’t just about you, fighting your plucky battles, finding your way through. It’s also about the reader and the big truth we are all involved in.

6 Splurge

You often have to dig for the real heart of an incident, why it matters enough to be in the book. So splurge about everything, as if no one’s there, all the time in the world, no book to fill. Just take a stroll with your thoughts, dwell in them. You’ll write far too much, but it’s how you find the gems. Then open your eyes and start to think of the reader. You might also find that some experiences you thought were formative were not.

You won’t necessarily know the book’s truest shape until you do this.

7 Seek

Write with a sense of learning about yourself. That journey of discovery will also become the reader’s. In the end, your book will bring you – and them – to a new place, perhaps wiser, perhaps comforted, perhaps entertained, perhaps changed, perhaps renewed. Perhaps everything.

That’s why they should read about your life.

There’s loads more about story structure in my plot book.

If you’d like help with your own writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Your first pages – 5 more book openings critiqued at @Litopia by literary agent @agentpete , reader @kaylie_finn and me!

I’ve just guested again at Litopia, the online writers’ colony and community. Each week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five manuscripts are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox @agentpete and a guest, or sometimes two. This time the other guest was one of Litopia’s longtime members Kaylie Finn, who knows her way around a critique.

The format is simple. Five manuscripts, each with a short blurb. We hear the opening pages, then discuss how they’re working – exactly as agents and commissioning editors would consider a submission. And there’s now an added goody – each month, the submission with the most votes is fast tracked to the independent publisher Head of Zeus, and several writers have already been picked up after appearing on the show. (So we take our critiquing very seriously… no pressure.)

As always, the submissions had many strengths. And also much to teach us. Issues we discussed were unfortunate connotations in names, how to make fantasy ‘special’ enough, what signals a blurb gives about tone and genre, whether a blurb is misleading, how a title sets up expectations, whether a prologue is a good idea or an unnecessary distraction, how much exposition to include in a first scene, when we might need more explanation in a first scene, when action might be confusing, how much you need to explain when your story world is a well known historical event, and tricky considerations when writing in dialect.

Enjoy! And if you’ve got a manuscript you’d like critiqued, apply here.

If you’d like help with your own writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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How I made my writing career – novelist and award-winning short story writer Annalisa Crawford @AnnalisaCrawf

How do you end up as a writer? Some people train through formal courses; others work away in answer to an inner calling, then one day they have short stories that do well in competitions, and longer works that get offers from publishers. Today I’m talking to Annalisa Crawford, whose latest release is a novel, Small Forgotten Moments. We talk about this – and many other moments between those self-started beginnings, and now.  

Roz Where did your writing journey start?

Annalisa I’ve always had a very active imagination. My daydreams often featured my younger sister being abducted and me having to tell my teachers at school, or my parents disappearing into thin air in front of me. When I was very young, I was scared I’d make these terrible things happen just by thinking about them, so I started to write them down and make other people’s sisters get kidnapped.

Roz Were your parents creative artists of any kind or are you the outlier in the family?

Annalisa None of my family are artistic at all. My mum and dad were very practical people – they wanted me to have a trade or a skill (like touch-typing, which I never mastered). But despite not really understanding why I always wandered around in a daze, they were very supportive, especially when I started to submit short stories and they could see how serious I was.

Roz And you’ve done really well with that. Third place in the Costa Short Story Award 2015, a longlisting for both the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and Bath Short Story Award in 2018. That looks like the Midas touch, but I’m guessing that rejection is a large part of that journey…

Annalisa If you cast enough stones, one of them is bound to hit the target. Rejection is a huge part of the process of learning how to write, in my opinion. You have to suffer the pain to appreciate the joy.

I used to save all my rejection letters – I possibly still have them – because I was submitting at a time when editors sent personalised responses and they were so uplifting and encouraging. The judge of one competition I entered monthly was brilliant for my confidence. One of my favourite comments from him was: ‘Your writing is so good you really deserve to win more frequently.’ It bolstered me and made me try harder because I wanted to impress him.

I’m very proud of the competitions you’ve mentioned. The Costa Award was amazing because I got to go to the London Costa Book Award ceremony that year. The short story award wasn’t televised though, much to my disappointment, but I got to mix with quite a few celebrities. I was too nervous to fully enjoy it, but it gave me a taste of what I’d like to aim for in the future. A nice Costa Book Award win would suit me nicely.

Roz Let’s talk about your novellas, published by Vagabondage Press. How did you end up there?

Annalisa Back in 2011, ebooks were just starting to become a ‘thing’, although I don’t think people knew how big they would get. I had a novella called Cat & The Dreamer which was too long for literary journals and too short to be a real book, so I’d pretty much given up on it ever being published.

I found Vagabondage via Writers’ News – a tiny little article in the sidebar – and I sent it on a whim. I remember thinking I just wanted someone to read it before I shelved it forever. And they accepted it, which was incredible. It came at a time when I was starting to waver in my belief that I would ever get off the starting blocks.

Roz Vine Leaves Press have published a short story collection from you and your two novels. How did you find them?

Annalisa I’d already come across Jessica Bell, who started Vine Leaves Press, and was friends with her on Facebook – I think that must have been through my blog. I saw her mention the annual Vine Leaves vignette competition. I was between projects, so I spent a couple of months writing whatever came into my head. I chose a beautiful notebook from my extensive collection, and each story had its own page. When I ran out of words, I started a new page and a new story. I gave myself no pressure, and I really enjoyed it. That notebook is safely tucked away; it’s surprising how many of the stories remained true to their original concept without much editing at all.

Sadly the collection didn’t win the competition, but Jessica asked if I would consider Vine Leaves anyway. She asked me to add a few longer stories, which I was able to redraft from ones which already existed, as well as the Costa winning one, and off it went into the world.

(Note from Roz: that collection is You. I. Us – and Annalisa wrote about it for my series The Undercover Soundtrack.)

Roz It seems only a short time since you published your first novel Grace & Serenity. Are you a fast writer or did you have several books on the go at once?

Annalisa Yes, they’re just 14 months apart, and it’s probably the quickest I’ll ever publish two books. I’m still not sure how it happened. I don’t remember working on them in tandem, but there must have been a rest-redraft movement happening.

Both Grace & Serenity and Small Forgotten Moments were old novels that I couldn’t let go, so I wasn’t writing either of them from scratch. The basics of the stories were there and I cannibalised them. I took a black marker pen and crossed out everything that didn’t work – whole chapters were obliterated, sub-plots carved up, characters deleted. It was harsh but necessary. I think my theory was, if I got to the end and there was nothing left, I’d have to move on to something new.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I don’t plan my novels so there are times when I hit the third or fourth draft before I realise what the story is. That was definitely the case with both of these books. I’m trying so hard to plan a new novel, but at the moment it’s just a series of images and concepts in my head.

Roz What are the defining qualities of an Annalisa Crawford book? Any particular themes and curiosities?

Annalisa Oh, what a great question. I have no idea. I never think in terms of themes, I simply tell a story that I’m fascinated by. I like to delve into the inner psyche of a person and force them to tell me why they are the person they are.

Strong mother-type characters tend to feature, and most of my characters are running away from something, whether they’re aware of it or not.

Roz Tell me about Small Forgotten Moments. Where did it come from?

Annalisa As I mentioned earlier, Moments was initially a very different story. It still centred around an artist called Jo and her painting (Zenna) which came to life, however the painting in the original story was based on a convoluted myth I made up. There was a dead boyfriend, a mafia-esque type connection, a stalker… I threw so much into this poor novel that it didn’t work at all. Embarrassingly, it earned a full request from an agent who quickly realised her mistake.

I printed it out and slashed it to pieces with my black marker pen. Some chapters had a single line left, others had nothing at all. In the original story, the painting was almost a subplot, so I knew I wanted to make it central this time and then I had to ask myself who Zenna was. And when I knew that, I had to ask why she was so important to Jo now. Then it got taped back together and the hard work started.

Roz What’s the significance of the title?

Annalisa Small Forgotten Moments refers to the amnesia Jo suffers from and the gaps which are never filled. It refers to all those little asides in our life we take for granted. Even though there are some very big things she’s forgotten, it’s the little things which really affect her.

Roz How do you recharge?

Annalisa Walking with my dog (and muse) Artoo and coffee with friends are both great ways to recharge. The views from my town are stunning, even from the balcony of my local bookshop where I stop for a scone and cup of tea.

Roz What do you most like to read?

Annalisa Reading is probably the best way for me to relax. I’ve heard other authors say they read with their editing head on, but I can quite happily read as a reader. I go for quirky covers or titles, or in the case of a novel recently because one chapter was half a page long, and I write short chapters too.

I have a couple of favourite authors whose books I anticipate, but on the whole the author isn’t hugely important to me.

Roz I happen to know from Facebook that you’re also a fitness instructor. Quite a difference from, if I may say it, sitting on your glutes dreaming into the keyboard. How did you end up with two such opposite professions?

Annalisa I came to exercise quite late – I was rubbish at sports at school (still am, actually – hand/eye coordination is not my forte) and there are only so many times you can be chosen last for a team sport before you give up trying. But I read a lot of exercise magazines and was drawn to the idea of lifting weights. It was only when I had my first baby and was still wearing maternity clothes when I returned to work that I decided to join the gym.

I enjoyed it, lost weight, saw a difference, and something clicked – I knew I wanted to share my love of working out. So, I retrained and luckily got some casual hours in the same gym where I was a member, which led to a permanent position.

Roz Do you find the two professions fit together?

Annalisa It’s a great way to switch off and really focus on my body.

Roz I find that with horse-riding. It’s ideal for clearing your mind (otherwise you find yourself dangling in a hedge).

Annalisa As a non-horse rider, I kind of assumed you could just let the horse do its thing and leave you to daydream… Obviously not! Weight lifting is much like horse-riding in that respect – you have to be very present because things can go wrong quickly if you lose concentration. And, obviously, sitting at a desk for hours is not good. I’m a compulsive writer when I’m in the middle of a project, so I could easily sit down before breakfast and not move until bedtime if I didn’t have anything else to do.

Roz Me too. On days when I’m not riding, my husband (Dave) has to send me nagging emails and Facebook messages telling me to take screen breaks. But I also run, and I find it puts me in an impatient and determined frame of mind, which helps me with certain kinds of plot problem-solving.

Do you have any other professions under your belt, present or past?

Annalisa In my head, writing was always my career, so I didn’t need another profession. I accidentally got a job in a college library and stayed there for 15 years, then I moved to the gym. I found a two-week intensive course to train as an instructor; if it had been a year or more  of studying, I might have talked myself out of it. In a different world, I’d quite like to have been an architect. I loved technical drawing at school – I think I was one of the last year groups to be taught it as a separate subject – but my maths would have let me down.

Roz How has your lockdown been?

Annalisa Lockdown has been a mixed blessing for me. On the one side, Grace & Serenity was published at the tail end of the first UK lockdown which meant some events didn’t happen, such as some in-person signings at my local bookshop, but those are definitely happening this year for Small Forgotten Moments. With Grace & Serenity I wasn’t quite sure how to use Zoom etc for online events, but I’m planning them for Small Forgotten Moments.

However, on the other side, the emergence of online literary festivals meant I saw a lot of events I would have struggled to attend in real life. I saw quite a few of the Hay and Cheltenham Festival.

I was furloughed from my job which meant I could really dive into the edits of Small Forgotten Moments. I was asked to make a couple of changes before I sent it to the developmental editor, so I took the opportunity to take one last sweep through the whole novel and found a lot of little changes I wanted to make. Without the time my furlough allowed, I think the novel wouldn’t have been quite so strong.

Roz Do you think the lockdown will work its way into your future books?

Annalisa I can’t currently imagine how I could write about the lockdown in a new and interesting way. It’s all still so polarising, half my readership would hate it.

However, the book I’m working on at the moment is based on a short story I wrote many years ago which in turn was based on something that actually happened to me. At the beginning of the story a woman wakes up and her town is deserted – no people, animals, birds, not even a breeze.

During the first lockdown, my town really stepped up and the roads really were that empty. Did you notice that where you are?

Roz I did. I noticed the quiet. I live in a London suburb, and most of the residents work in the centre of town. When lockdown started, I had a sense that the houses around me had never been so full of people, 24 hours a day, and that we were all in the same bewildered muddle, wondering how to get normality with these new rules. It was silent, yes, and a silence beyond the cessation of the aeroplanes or the normal commuting traffic. It was a pause of life. Anyway, you were saying… the emptiness…

Annalisa Experiencing it really gave me an insight into the range of emotions my character would be feeling, how it seemed to lay down on me as I walked around. Shut-up shops in the middle of the day were a lot more eerie than I imagined they would be.

Roz Is there a question you wish somebody would ask in an interview?

Annalisa Oh goodness, great question, and yet my mind has gone blank. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked what happens to my characters after the story has finished.

Roz You’ve never been asked that? I get asked that all the time! So I’m asking it of you now… what will you say?

Annalisa I’d worm my way out of answering, if I’m being honest. I love ambiguous endings. Not completely open, but with enough information for the reader to see two or more paths. It’s a trait I utilised when I was writing short stories and can’t quite shake off.

Find Small Forgotten Moments here. Find Annalisa at her website, on Facebook, on her blog and on Twitter @annalisacrawf

If you’d like help with your own writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Would Ever Rest suit your book club? Here’s a FREE book to help you decide

My third novel Ever Rest, has been in the wilds for a few weeks now. It still feels very new to me. I’m still watching its reviews more than I should.

Several reviewers have mentioned they’d like to introduce it to their book clubs, so I’ve created these crib notes, to use as a primer before reading, or a refresher afterwards. I’ve included key themes, suggested questions for discussion, and an interview by Garry Craig Powell at Late Last Night Books where I explain my inspirations and intentions – which, of course, might be entirely irrelevant to your own reading of the book. Spoilers are flagged in case you’d like to avoid them.

The title is more ponderous than I would like. I wanted to call it Sleeve Notes, but Amazon’s rules require the words ‘Study Guide’ in the title, and prominently on the cover. There were other options, but they were even more earnest. So Study Guide it is.

Anyway, it’s formatted as an ebook and a PDF and you can download it free from all the major ebook retailers. Find it here.

PS For more of my creative doings, you might like my newsletter, here

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How much does it cost to self-publish? That depends

I’ve had an interesting question from Tom. A lot of authors that are self-published avoid the question of cost. How much does it cost you to self publish? I would think that a lot of writers that aren’t financially well off want to know this info.

What a good question. To answer, I’d like to reframe it.

A lot of the basic aspects of self-publishing are low cost, or even free. Publishing on Amazon, Smashwords and Kobo, three of the major platforms, is free. Making Word documents and PDFs is free. Formatting ebooks and print books can be free if you’re careful and meticulous, and there are low-cost options to make it easier. Covers can be made free – or for very little money – in applications like Canva and Bookbrush.

So why do authors pay a lot more for publishing services?

The answer is: they’re paying for a professional edge. In editing, book production, cover design, copywriting. Marketing knowhow. Advertising. Access to curated audiences.

And how much does that cost? It’s honestly a difficult question to answer.

I realise this might sound evasive, but it’s like asking how much it costs to have a wedding.

It depends what kind of wedding you want. You can make your own dress from fabric bought for a tenner on eBay, you can pick a bouquet from your garden, you can use the local registry office and hold the reception in your house. Or not even bother with the reception. Or you can have a dress handmade by an amazing designer, invite hundreds of people, hire a manor house with caterers… you get the picture.

How much does it cost to self-publish? It depends on the result you want. You could do a lot yourself, for very little money, and it would still be a published book. Or you could involve professionals.  

A warning

Here’s an important caveat. There are good and bad operators. Bad operators are usually taking advantage of your inexperience by offering a service of little proven value, or charging a vastly inflated price. So if you’re considering paying for a publishing service, check these two sources: Victoria Strauss’s site Writer Beware, and the Alliance of Independent Authors’ watchdog desk.

Anyway, we were saying…

Why involve professionals?

They will add value. They will give you an advantage – help you catch the attention of customers or build a reputation with good reviews in the grown-up world of books.

What if that does not matter to you? That is fine. We all write and publish for different reasons. Here’s a parallel from my own life. I have a horse. Many horse owners I know are keen to compete in jumping or dressage or eventing. They want their horses to have careers. I couldn’t give two hoots about competing. I want to ride and train my horse for our own joy. Success, to me, is personal satisfaction.

If you have the ‘career’ approach, you have to think like a competitor. You can’t do it without professionals. You won’t be able to do a polished job – and you won’t even know what details will make the difference. A cover designer will do more than create a nice piece of art. They will create art that will shout ‘buy me!’ to the right people. An editor will know how to make your book work best for your ideal audience. Professionals will help you raise your game, fulfil your potential. Using them is an investment, which should lead to higher sales, a good reputation, maybe awards etc.

But that might not matter to you. And that’s fine. Do whatever gives you satisfaction.

How much does it cost to self-publish?

The question is slightly wrong, I feel. It shouldn’t be ‘what does it cost’, but ‘what value would you get from hiring a professional or using a service’? To compare it with weddings, you spend as much as you need to feel you’ve done it properly, for your own personal goals. But here’s a departure from the weddings comparison – if you spend your budget wisely, it should pay you back in more tangible ways too.

And not everything has to be expensive. Here’s a piece on how to get useful writing tuition if you can’t afford an editor.

PS I’m teaching a course in self-publishing at the Romantic Novelists’ Association. Book here

PPS If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on at my own writing desk (and with my little horse), here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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How I made my writing career – poet, publisher and creative writing tutor David Starkey @WhatHaiku

David Starkey was always a writer at heart. After a few attempts at novels he found his feet in poetry, and has published a range of collections, including one that follows the plot of a series of The Sopranos. If that’s stopped you in your tracks, fear not, we will talk about it in due course. His latest book is What Just Happened: 210 Haiku Against the Trump Presidency. We’ll talk about that first.   

Roz Why did you choose the haiku form for this material?

David I initially started the series by writing one 15-line poem for each month of Trump’s awful presidency, but he did so many bad things in any given month, I quickly realized that I would have to go week-by-week. Around that point, I remembered David Trinidad’s hilarious Peyton Place: A Haiku Soap Opera in which he’d written one haiku for each episode of that 1960s TV show. I didn’t want my book to turn into an epic, so that seemed like a good model, and I decided to stick to the traditional five-seven-five syllable pattern, which forced me to be careful with every syllable. Haiku purists might have trouble with some of the poems, but my subject matter was anything but pure.

Roz Why is poetry your chosen medium?

David When I was young, I wanted to be a novelist, but although I’ve finished a couple of (thankfully unpublished) novels, I haven’t yet been able to get the hang of it—though I haven’t given up yet. But basically, I became a poet by default. I had a knack for it, and the longer I worked at my craft—it’s been 35 years since I published my first poem—the better I got. At least, I hope that’s the case.

Roz What is poetry? Is it possible to answer this? What do you look for in a poem?

David Just about anything can become a good poem—I’m open to whatever a poet wants to try. But when it comes to the poems I really enjoy reading, they’re usually imagistic, concise and alive to the possibilities of sound. I like to hear assonance and consonance in service of the phrasing.

Roz How did you arrive at this creative career? Were your family in the arts or are you an outlier?

David Both my parents were schoolteachers, and while they valued education, they certainly weren’t big into the arts. I grew up in a lower-middle-class neighbourhood in unexciting Sacramento, California—it wasn’t the sort of place where anyone is expected to write poetry.

Roz Did you enter the world of professional creative writing directly or did you take a longer road?

David I always liked to write, but before I became an academic, I worked for an insurance company for a while. That was pretty miserable.

Roz You’ve got an impressive range of credits, with poetry published in American Scholar, Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Southern Review and many others. How long did it take to get serious attention for your work?

David I started getting published fairly quickly after I began writing seriously, but that’s probably because I was so persistent in submitting my work. This was back in the mid-80s, when you typed up your poems on a typewriter, used Wite-Out to make corrections, and surreptitiously made copies on the office copy machine.

Roz Were there many rejections? Are there still many rejections?

David Yes, I’ve been rejected countless times, and no doubt there are many more rejections ahead. I think that rejection just means that a writer, especially a poet, is still willing to take risks and experiment, to get things wrong first, before getting them right.

Roz I love that. But I think rejection is different in longform publishing. Certainly a book will be rejected if it needs more work, but it might also be rejected because it doesn’t suit the publisher’s audience.  

In your poetry, what are your main themes and concerns?

David I write a lot about family, and though I’ve just called my hometown ‘unexciting’, I frequently draw on the city and surrounding farmlands and foothills for material.

Roz Have these changed over the years?

David As I get older, I’ve begun writing more elegies. And I’m always open to some odd incident or happenstance becoming the germ for a poem. In fact, if I am an “underappreciated” poet, as I read a few years back, it’s partly because my tastes and subject matter are so idiosyncratic. You get a sense of that eccentricity in What Just Happened, which mines another of my favourite themes: politics, in particular America’s perpetually disappointing behaviour, which we saw so clearly during Trump’s reign.

Roz If I could whistle up a time warp, what would Today’s David say to Earlier David?

David I hope I’m more sophisticated and more concise than I was three and a half decades ago, but of course there’s a certain jouissance any young writer has that’s inevitably going to diminish over time. That said, I think tonally my work has been pretty consistent: there’s always lots of irony in a David Starkey poem.

Roz You’ve had 11 poetry collections published with small presses. Tell me about that.

David I completed my MFA in poetry writing at Louisiana State University in 1990, and of course I was hoping I would be the Next Big Thing. I’d received a lot of praise in my graduate program, but there are a lot of graduate programs in creative writing, and more coming online all the time. So, when I didn’t win the Yale Younger Poets prize, or any of its equivalents, I soon realized that my best publication chances were going to come through small presses, which are generally more welcoming to someone like me, who doesn’t excel at schmoozing.

Roz Is it possible to sum up each of your collections in a word or two? If we put them all together, would we see the barometer of David’s life?

David I don’t know that I could sum up each book in a single word, but I’d say the arc has gone from very small micro-presses to those that are more robust in marketing their writers’ work. I think if you read the books from first to most recent, you would get a pretty good sense of what was happening in my life and my general attitude toward things. One big caveat: I write frequently from other people’s perspectives—in fact, I’d say a good half of everything I’ve written is some form of a dramatic monologue. So, the actual details in any given poem might be completely fabricated. And, again, I’m liable to write a poem about anything, so there are a lot of tangents in there.

Roz Let’s talk about editing poets. How does one edit poets? And what do poets look for in an editor?

David I think serious poets want to write the best poem they are capable of writing at that particular moment. A good editor is someone who works with the material that’s already there, who doesn’t try and take over another person’s poem and make it their own.

Roz What about teaching? How does one teach poets? What kind of guidance do they need and seek?

David What young poets need and seek don’t always match up. When poets are first starting out, as they usually are when they take a community college creative writing class, they really benefit from being exposed to lots of different writing that they probably didn’t know existed. For instance, if all you’ve read is sentimental verse celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, or on the other end of the spectrum, you think poetry equals hip-hop, and that’s it, you’re going to be surprised by how many other ways people have found to effectively express themselves. My creative writing textbook is going into its fourth edition this year, and I think part of its success is due to how keen I’ve been to seek out and share a wide variety of new writing, in all genres.

Roz I notice Wikipedia mentions your collection Like a Soprano, based on the TV series. This is such a surprising idea. How did you come to write it?

David The book by David Trinidad that I mentioned earlier was an inspiration for Like a Soprano. However, instead of writing one haiku for each episode, I went with the prose poem, which gave me a lot more flexibility to handle the nuances of the show. I was also thinking of how in centuries gone by poets would write about the gods and heroes, and yet they seem so distant to us now. Our new mythology is formed by television—and movies and video games—and Tony Soprano is a larger-than-life figure for our time.

One of the main characters in the show—Michael Imperioli, who played Christopher Moltisanti—lives in Santa Barbara and was nice enough to write a blurb, so I thought Like a Soprano would make a bigger splash than it did. But it turns out that if you make a Venn diagram, the overlap between viewers of The Sopranos and readers of literary poetry is, alas, pretty small.

Roz The unexpected combination of genres and readerships… This is also a hazard for longform writers. Anyway, tell me about another work of yours that you wish would get more attention.

David It’s the book I published just before What Just Happened. It’s called Dance, You Monster, to My Soft Song, and it contains the best poems I wrote between 2014, when Like a Soprano was published, and 2020. Like so many pandemic-era poetry books, it seems to have been lost in the shuffle.

Roz You founded – or helped to found – the creative writing programme at Santa Barbara City College. How did that happen?

David Prior to my arrival at City College, creative writing was just a couple of classes offered every once in a while. As founding director, I went through all the official curriculum development that a college requires, gave the offerings some structure, set up a reading series, instituted student writing contests, and so forth.

Roz Does this mean you have created your own ideal creative writing programme – and what does that look like?

David I don’t know that it’s my ideal programme. American community colleges are designed to propel students into four-year institutions after just two years, so there’s not a lot of continuity among the student population, but I think it’s done a lot of good over the past 14 years. I just retired a month ago, and it’s been hard to let it go.

Roz You’re a co-editor of Gunpowder Press…

David I started Gunpowder Press back in 2014 because I wanted to publish two books of poetry. The first was by my late friend, David Case, who died when he was just 49. He named me as his literary executor, and I heard from publishers that bringing out a book by a relatively unknown poet who was no longer alive to promote it was a losing proposition for them, no matter how good the poems were.

Then my Santa Barbara friend Chryss Yost had a wonderful first book that she’d been having trouble publishing. As it happened, Chryss was also a whiz at book and web design, and after I published her book, I asked her to come on board as co-editor.

Most of the books we publish are through our annual Barry Spacks Poetry Prize, which is named after Santa Barbara’s first poet laureate. Chryss and I choose our 10 favourite manuscripts then forward them, without names attached, to our final judge, a prominent poet who changes every year. We also have an anthology series, started by Chryss, that features poets of California’s Central Coast.

Roz Also you’re co-editor of the California Review of Books

David I got the idea for The California Review of Books when our local arts paper, where I’d been publishing book reviews for years, decided to focus only on local writers. I teamed up with Brian Tanguay, another of the paper’s long-time reviewers, and Chryss Yost, and we’ve been publishing reviews since January.

Roz For both, are there any mistakes or shortcomings you see frequently in submissions from authors?

David It’s the standard thing most editors would say: some potential contributors don’t seem to be aware of the type of work we publish. But the submission chances for the two are very different, at least at the moment. Getting even a very good poetry book published by Gunpowder is really difficult, but getting a strong, 1,000-word review published in CRB is absolutely doable.

Roz What have I forgotten? Oh yes, your six textbooks on creative writing, and several other textbooks you’ve edited or contributed to. Do these represent changes or refinements to your teaching approach over the years?

David I think a lot of students, and teachers, dismiss textbooks as a not very important genre of writing, and it’s true some are pretty horrible. However, it’s extraordinarily hard, and time-consuming, to write a good textbook. As my teaching matured, I did become a better—and, yes, more refined—writer of textbooks, certainly since the first one was published in 1999. The older you get, though, the more actively you have to work to place yourself in the mind of a 20-year old student.

Roz What are you working on at the moment?

David I’ve started and stopped several projects since I finished What Just Happened. I usually have a sense after five or six pages that something has the potential to make it to the finish line, and if it doesn’t, I will quickly abandon ship. I like Keats’s thought that ‘If it come not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.’ That doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty of hard work and revision, but I don’t want to feel like I’m swimming upstream—to use my third cliché of this response.

Roz You’re teaching the writers of tomorrow. You’re publishing them too, and your own body of respected work. Are you living the dream?

David I always remind myself how lucky I am to have the time to write at all. Most people are too busy trying to make a living, or simply finding edible food and clean water, to even think about writing poetry. Having the chance to sit down and say what’s on my mind is an incredible luxury. I’m definitely living the dream.

Find David on Facebook and tweet him at @WhatHaiku

Find What Just Happened, which is published by Vine Leaves Press, here

If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Making my honest art – writing and publishing literary fiction: interview at @thecreativepenn

Today I’m at Joanna Penn’s now legendary podcast, The Creative Penn, talking about writing and publishing literary fiction.

We cover the writing process for a very long-haul book (ie Ever Rest), the research process, creative revision, how you battle on when you’ve lost your way, and how you design a cover for a book that doesn’t have established genre parameters.

We also cover another big question – if literary fiction isn’t the most predictably lucrative kind of book, and marketing is tricky, what are the guaranteed rewards? Hence the line about making honest art.

As always, I thoroughly enjoyed our discussion. Do come over.

If you’re curious about my creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Let pollocks be pollocks – a little chat about dialogue tags

On Facebook, I was having a deeply serious conversation about the use of exclamation marks, and my friend Indigo Roth said this:

Should it be:

“Pollocks,” he exclaimed.

Or

“Pollocks!” he exclaimed.

(Indigo actually used a more anatomical word, but I don’t want to get my blog blacklisted for bad language so I have used a substitute.) Anyway, we were saying…

Without the exclamation mark, said Indigo, it’s hard to get the impact in dialogue.

I replied:

Just write “Pollocks.” I wouldn’t bother mentioning that he has exclaimed it. The word already has the impact you need.

‘No shouty?!’ said Indigo.

No shouty, I said.

But,’ said Indigo, ‘how did he say it? Quietly? At a bellow? Isn’t the supporting explanation necessary? Though in general, I prefer less enthusiastic punctuation.’

Aha, I said, do you need a supporting explanation? Think of the scene. Presumably, whoever ‘pollocks’ is being said to will react more to the word ‘pollocks’ than to any tone it’s said in, unless the tone is very unexpected, such as a giggle. In that case, it’s worth stating how it’s said because that’s extra important information. Otherwise, I would let pollocks be pollocks.

Here, the discussion ended, but this leads to another question. What effect do you want?

If you add an explanation of how pollocks is said, you interpose yourself between the reader and the text. If that’s your intention, good.Much depends on your book’s style. You might be deliberately shepherding the reader – for instance, if your book has an obvious narrator, the reader is experiencing everything through a filter. Similarly, if your book has a comic tone but the narrator is not a character, the narrative might have a sensibility that comes across in this kind of descriptive line (‘pollocks,’ he spluttered).

But otherwise, the reader will connect more directly with the characters if the dialogue tags are low key. ‘Pollocks,’ he said. Don’t be afraid to use ‘said’. It’s almost invisible, which lets your characters’ own words shine.

Also, I might be tempted to leave the tag off altogether. Not every line needs one. It may be obvious from the order of paragraphs who said what, so you don’t have to label each line. The punctuation will tell the reader the word was spoken out loud, so you don’t need a dialogue tag for that reason.

And if you’ve used a word or a statement that is strong enough, and the reader knows the characters well, you can try letting it stand on its own.

‘Luke, I am your father,’ he bellowed – here, we might connect more to the writer than the characters, because we are seeing the writer’s experience of the moment.

‘Luke, I am your father.’ Wow. The writer got right out of the way. I’m sharing the moment with Luke.

Speech bubbles pic by Petr Kratochvil

PS There’s loads more about dialogue in my characters book

PPS If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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The books that are our teachers – and 5 of my favourite reads (at @muddysurrey )

Today I have a guest spot at Muddy Stilettos, talking about five books I can read again and again. I read them chiefly for pleasure, but also with awe and envy.

Writers learn from reading as much as from writing. I can’t tell you the number of times I have advised an editing client: read more. The problems I’ve found in your manuscript would be solved by tuning your awareness through reading. This goes for problems with style, use of back story, dialogue, descriptions, interiority…

Writing prose is not just storytelling, or plotting, or worldbuilding, or character development, or structure management. It is also a performance, like an elaborate magic trick, enacted on the reader’s mind through your use of words. To do it well, you must understand how your reader thinks, what they are interested in, how they are second-guessing you, how they are responding to the visual shape of every sentence, every comma. Some of this can be taught, but a lot is picked up by constant exposure, by reading like writers.

How do we do that? Here are a few recent posts.

Reading as a duty and reading for pleasure.

All about reading groups and writing groups – an episode of So You Want To Be A Writer.

Are you a writer? Don’t neglect your reading – post at Writers Helping Writers.

Reading vs watching and The Night Manager – why I prefer the book.

How to read like a writer – another episode of So You Want To Be A Writer.

Why you should read poetry as well – 11 poets to help you polish your prose, an interview with poetry evangelist Joe Nutt.

Three books I wish I’d written. And another five.

Circling back to the top, here are the five books I nominated at Muddy Stilettos (which I always want to spell with an e, stilettoes). These books were milestones for my latest novel Ever Rest, and they will continue to influence and inspire me, whatever I write. Which books are your eternal teachers? (And do come over. High heels are optional.)

PS If you’re quick, you can enter this giveaway to win a signed print copy of Ever Rest.

PPS If you’re looking for writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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