Archive for category How to write a book

How to write the difficult second novel. And why it’s difficult. Ep 45 FREE podcast for writers

The difficult second novel. Why might it be difficult? Does it have to be? Are there ways you could make it, well, easier? Indeed, we contend there are ways in which your second novel will be much easier to write than the first.

We are, of course, Peter Snell, a bookseller, and me!

Stream from the widget below or go to our Mixcloud page and binge the whole lot.

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, including my own (difficult) third novel, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

, , , , , , ,

3 Comments

How to – and how not to – run an online writing community. And publishing post Covid. Interview with literary agent Peter Cox of @Litopia @agentPete

You’ve seen the posts here about Peter Cox’s writing community Litopia – the home of Pop-Up Submissions, where manuscripts are critiqued live on air by writers, readers and a chat room. Sometimes the guest critic is me! I’ve always been impressed with the show. For a start, it looks amazingly slick. But underneath that is a genuine love of books and reading, who value writing that is done well.

On one of our pre-show chats Peter remarked: ‘someone should write a piece about literary communities. I’ve made every mistake in the book.’

Someone definitely should, I said.

So here we are. We also talk about the publishing world post-Covid: what might publishers be looking for? What do readers want? Can that question even be answered yet?

But first, Litopia.

Roz Tell me about Litopia. What is it, how long has it been running, how big is it now? What made you set it up?

Peter Litopia has been going for decades.  It’s by far the oldest writers’ community on the net.  We’re probably due for our silver anniversary round about now.

Originally, I was an early member of one of the oldest virtual communities online, the WELL.  This was an odd collection of folk, many of them connected to The Whole Earth Catalog, who thought it would be fun to set up an intentional community in cyberspace.  People such as Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, and Howard Rheingold.

Roz I’ve never even heard of that. I just googled it and found it stood for Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link. I love that. It’s so retro-futurist. (Retro-futurism, You heard it here first.)

Peter Looking back, the WELL was always quite cliquey.  If you didn’t happen to be in with the cool crowd, who smoked a prodigious amount of dope by the way, then you weren’t really significant in the community.

It was a wildly optimistic time.  People naively believed that computers would democratize the world.  “Access to tools” was the mantra.  “The Future” was an exciting place – and most of us believed we were already living there.  The horrors of venture capitalism, Facebook and creeping state surveillance and control weren’t even on the radar.

From my experience on the WELL, I thought it would be exciting to establish a community just for writers.  Most writers already had computers.  And I felt there was an unmet need for social contact that legacy organisations such as the Society of Authors could not fulfil.

Roz I’ve mainly come across Litopia in the Pop-Up Submissions show. For those who don’t know the format, it’s a Dragons’ Den for writers. Five manuscripts are critiqued on air by you, two guests and the observers in the chat room. It’s a brave thing to do live online. We’ve all encountered the ugly sides of social media, but you’ve managed to create a civilised and constructive tone. At the same time, the show doesn’t pull its punches. Everyone’s there because they want to see honest criticism and they want to learn. How have you achieved this?

Peter Thank you, Roz.  That’s the tone we want to strike, and I think we mostly do.  Obviously, our choice of guests such as you is important 😊  But seriously, I like writers, always have done.  They are unusual people, not always well-suited to the mundane world.

Roz Totally. Writers – and other creatives – look into cracks that others don’t even notice. They ask questions that can’t easily be answered and aren’t necessarily of practical use, but nevertheless seem to make life a little more worthwhile. We often think we’re on our own, too. At school, I was always interested in the wrong things or the unusual angles. I didn’t realise that this was characteristic of a particular profession. I thought I just didn’t fit. (I’ve written about that here – I write because I’m totally unsuited to anything else.)

Peter Writers definitely see things a bit differently, and thank heavens for that.  They challenge and expand our own definition of what being human means.  A world without writers would not be worth living in.  So they need our support and encouragement, but also, our honesty.  When you write, you necessarily lose much of your objectivity, and that why (most!) writers need honest feedback during the writing process.

Roz Yes – and I want to briefly talk about that. We lose our objectivity because we have to commit so much to the work. We have to believe in it, spend the time to get it right, often making themselves vulnerable. I never forget this when I’m giving critical feedback to writers. The text they give me represents a huge investment of faith. (I’ve talked about this before: Why your editor admires you.)

Peter I know.  I think it’s a great privilege to work with a writer at that kind of level.  What we can do on Pop-Up Submissions is to give some objective feedback, but not in a destructive way.

Roz What mistakes did you make with Litopia in the early days? And even in the later ones?

Peter A great many!  A few years ago, HarperCollins set up something called Authonomy, which didn’t last long, and I believe cost them a few million.  It really is not nearly as easy to set up an online community as it might appear.

The first I mistake made was not charging anything for it.  I carried all the costs.  This was a huge mistake, because people expected me to provide more and more – and got angry if they didn’t get what they were expecting.  I think people are beginning to understand now that the net has the same economics as any other part of life.  If Facebook is free to you the user, that’s only because they are ruthlessly mining your data and selling it at a vast profit to shadowy third parties, including people like Cambridge Analytica and the security services.  Are you really comfortable with that?  Personally, I’d prefer to pay a modest amount for membership of a site like Litopia, and forgo the creepy surveillance!

Roz So Litopia has evolved into its own beast… How does that compare with your original idea? Would that original intention have been possible, do you think?

Peter We evolve by reaction.  Everyone has access to me and can suggest whatever they want.  Some things are not going to be technically possible, but many are.  We’re quick to seize the technical opportunity.  Some technology is surprisingly cheap and under-exploited, that area is always of interest.

Roz I have to mention the technology. This show is seriously sleek. Many video-podcasts are essentially like watching a Skype call – a screen split between two or three speakers. Litopia is like a high-budget TV quiz show. All the presenters appear to be in a studio, behind a massive desk. Scoreboards pop up, manuscript excerpts appear with voice-over readings. There are snapshots of the discussion in the chat room. Drop-ins of writing tips from previous guests. A moody black-and-white section. There’s some serious video-fu in this show.

Peter Pop-Ups is evolving as much as any other part of Litopia.  We made the (difficult) transition from audio podcasts to live video a few years ago.  The bar for good video is much higher than for decent audio.  Increasingly, we rely on our members to keep Pop-Ups going, because it is a complex beast.  Our guests are booked from New Zealand.  Our live scoreboard is operated from Spain.  All our fabulous narrators are scattered over the globe.  It all somehow comes together live every Sunday.

We have a strong ethos of mutual help, which is far more important that any single piece of technology.  If a suggestion fits with our ethos, and is technically possible, then we’ll do it.

Roz Are you a writer as well? How did you end up as an agent?

Peter I fell into writing when a publisher suggested I should write a book for them.  It quickly sold 100k copies and became a UK number one bestseller. That hooked me.

Then I met Linda McCartney and wrote her cookbook, which was also a no 1 bestseller and sold millions of copies worldwide. I was generally dissatisfied with the representation I had, sacked the first agent, got another one, sacked that one, got a third one, sacked them and finally came to the conclusion that I could actually do it better myself.  I went to the US in my early days as an agent. New York publishing was far more exciting than here in London.

Roz I’m interested to know how NY publishing was more exciting… And seriously, many of this blog’s readers are in the US. Do you see much difference between the tastes of American and British publishers?

Peter Well rather paradoxically, NY publishing has traditionally been rather more conservative, rather more risk-averse than the Brits.  So you often have to sell a project somewhat harder.  The upside is that if one publisher wants what you’re selling, others are very likely to, as well.

There is still an insular quality to NY publishing that is rather frustrating.  However, the fruits of success are so very much bigger than in the UK.  New York is a rather flatter society than London meaning that it’s really not difficult to get a meeting with the top people in a company.  Access is a bit easier and doesn’t depend so much on “the network”.  Also, there is a real appetite for success, whereas in the UK, some parts of the business are still run on rather old-fashioned lines – I quickly grew fed up of being told rather smugly by certain London publishers that ‘publishing is not like other businesses, you know’.  Actually, it is!

Roz Have you noticed any changing trends in the kind of manuscripts people are sending you?

Peter Very little non-fiction, which is a pity.  Powerful non-fiction is the backbone of publishing.  I love polemics.  Escapist fiction is on the up and up.  Depressing teen dystopia is done for the moment, we’re already living that nightmare thank you very much.  Anything that gives us hope and inspiration is well received.  Big ideas with a strong voice are money-makers.

Roz What changes have you noticed in publishing since the pandemic started? Any words of advice for authors who are hoping to find a publishing deal?

Peter It’s very similar to what happened post 9/11.  I happened to be in front of the towers when the second plane hit, although I only saw the fireball, not the plane itself.  Immediately, they closed all exits from Manhattan island.  Everything went into “lockdown”.

It took many months for publishing to raise its head again and to figure out what sort of books they should be acquiring, and that’s where we’re at now.

Roz Authors wonder about it too. Some of us came to a standstill, wondering what to write, what could possibly be relevant in a world that had changed so much.

Peter Publishers are scratching their heads and wondering what sorts of books readers will be buying in nine months’ time. Any writer who can confidently answer that question will immediately have our attention.  Over to you, writers!  😊

Find Litopia’s site here, submit your own manuscript here, follow Litopia on Twitter @Litopia and follow Peter on Twitter @AgentPete

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org.. And what have I been writing these past months, indeed years? This.

, , , , , , , , , , ,

5 Comments

How to write a synopsis if you hate writing synopses

Spoilers! Just one reason to hate synopses. But I rather like this T-shirt, and I should mention it’s from Threadless.

I just finished the manuscript of my third novel, Ever Rest, and am now querying agents. So I’ve had to write a synopsis.

I don’t know any writer who relishes the synopsis. Essentially, you take 100,000 words (103,000, in my case) and boil it down, spoilers and all, to 500. And hate every moment.

But we have to do it. And this time, I came to an important realisation, one that made the process so much easier.

First, you need to get it down.

Phase 1 – outline the story

  1. Start with the protagonist. Introduce them and the status quo.
  2. Describe the incident that kicks off the main action and how it affects the main character.
  3. Describe how everything becomes complicated, the main plot turns, how they test the protagonist and make them change their goals.
  4. Mention any traditions and tropes of your genre that will appeal to your ideal readers. Amazing settings, outlandish murders etc.
  5. Describe the protagonist’s lowest point.
  6. Add the ultimate crisis or confrontation, and how the protagonist faces it.
  7. Finish with the resolution – how the protagonist is changed (or not), whether they’re wiser, happier, sadder, more true to themselves etc.
  8. Now consider other characters, if you haven’t already. Who else should you add so the synopsis makes sense? Choose the most important characters.
  9. How do those main relationships develop? Add that.
  10. Also add themes and issues.
  11. And lastly, what’s your most original and exciting idea? Make sure you’ve showcased that.
  12. Splice it all together, so it flows as a story in its own right.

Broad strokes

You’ll have to fit it into just one page. There’s a lot you might have to leave out. In Ever Rest, I have four main characters, but there wasn’t room in the synopsis to explain all their arcs. So I left one out. My synopsis is a version of the story with just three of the main characters.

So you now have a document that makes sense but probably looks entirely soulless, compared with the rich experience it is derived from.

Hold that thought.

The conversation

Here, we eavesdrop on writerly life.

Husband Dave is also a writer (here’s a post about the two-writer household). It’s useful for support and also for tough love.

Dave: ‘Have you got your synopsis ready?’

Me: ‘Yes. I hope nobody reads it.’

Dave: a severe look.

I realised. That would not do.

I searched my soul. I had written the synopsis in a state of frustration and rebellion. This is stupid. Why do I have to write this? I’d prefer you read the whole book instead.

Does that sound familiar?

Phase 2

So here’s the biggest secret.

I decided I had to stop hating that document.

Writers are creatures of expressive emotion, and that emotion shines through our work. The reader can tell which characters we’re most committed to, which situations arouse our deepest curiosity, which ideas we love. We draw on our most genuine parts to write a story. We believe in it. We need to bring that belief to the synopsis too.

I read my synopsis and saw it had no soul. It was just a series of events. I rewrote those events, concentrating instead on the characters’ emotions. The rage, the hope, the fear, the distress, the dread, the yearning. Suddenly, I was enjoying it. I still loved telling the story the long way, the proper way. But now, I loved this new way to tell it.

That’s what you’re looking for. If someone reads your synopsis, you want them to crave the full-length experience, not to shrug and move on.

So set yourself a challenge. You know you’ve got a fine book, full of emotion, jeopardy and your own genius originality. For your second phase of synopsising, write with that spirit. Don’t write it with disdain. Write it with love.

(There’s a lot more about writing synopses in my Nail Your Novel workbook.)

Oh, and what’s Ever Rest? And why, if I can self-publish, am I looking for an agent? All discussed here

, , , , , ,

29 Comments

I’ve written a book – what now? Ep44 FREE podcast for authors

You spend all that time on the manuscript. Polishing, honing, changing your mind. But eventually, you’re satisfied with it. What then? Send it to a literary agent, a publisher, explore self-publishing? What do all those entail? Is there anything else you should to do ensure your book is really ready?

That’s the topic we’re discussing today. And we have a special guest, David Beecroft, who asks all the things that we might not have thought to raise, because we don’t have the beginner’s eye-view. My co-host is independent bookseller Peter Snell.

Stream from the widget below or go to our Mixcloud page and binge the whole lot.

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

, , , , , , ,

1 Comment

Should you let anyone read your book before you’ve finished? Ep43 FREE podcast for writers

Once upon a time, writing was a solitary activity. Just you, your thoughts and your pages. Now, writing can be one of the most sociable things you can do on the internet. You can post chapters on a blog as you finish them, or on a serialisation platform like Wattpad, or in online communities.

Some of us – like me – hate to show anything before it’s had a lot of polishing.

We’re all different, but we all need feedback at some stage. Even the most secretive of writers (me!) occasionally yearn for an encouraging comment, simply for its own sake, to share the thing we’ve been building, to help us keep going, Artistic life is sometimes perverse.

Are there good times to show an unfinished work? Are there times when you should be cautious? Might you live to regret it? What about comments from readers – when might they be useful and when might they steer you wrong?

These are the questions I’m considering in this episode with my co-host, independent bookseller Peter Snell.

Stream from the widget below or go to our Mixcloud page and binge the whole lot.

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

 

 

, , , , , , , , , ,

3 Comments

Your first pages – 5 more novel openings critiqued by a literary agent (and me!) at @Litopia

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 we had longtime Litopia member Dean Baxter).

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 would consider a manuscript that arrived in their inbox.

As always, the submissions had many strengths. Issues we discussed included an appealing comedic voice but a scene that was spinning its wheels, subject matter that made the agent nervous, a blurb that didn’t do justice to the originality of the opening scene, a few beginnings that dragged their feet for some of us but kept others gripped. We don’t always agree! And we had a glorious techfutz behind the scenes when Peter’s sound card self-destructed in the heat, which meant we had to start recording all over again. You won’t see that bit, but you might notice the beads of perspiration on our working, worried brows.

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

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

, , , , , , , , , ,

8 Comments

Getting editors, spotting mistakes, publishing across many genres and author control! 4 questions from a self-publishing conference

Yesterday I gave a mini-course in self-publishing at the Jericho Writers Summer Festival. These are some of the most interesting questions that came up in the Q&A.

Should I hire a developmental editor before giving my manuscript to beta readers?

I wouldn’t. I’d polish the book as much as possible before you bring in the professionals. Show the book to your beta readers, get their feedback, work on it again yourself. When you can’t find anything more you want to change, or you don’t know what to do next, that’s when you’ll get the best value from a developmental editor.

Your beta readers might bring up issues that you can’t solve or don’t agree with, so you can then take those to a developmental editor. Often a beta reader has half the picture – they feel something isn’t working, but can’t tell you why or what to do instead. That’s where a developmental editor is gold.

So the more polishing you do with your own resources, the better value you’ll get out of the professionals. And the more you’ll grow as a writer. Here’s more on how to find the editor who’s right for you.

But what about spelling and grammar problems? I’m worried these errors might distract my beta readers…

Great point. Spelling and grammar glitches are infuriating for any reader. So are factual mistakes. I always say you want a book to be so perfect that it looks as though it came out of a machine, not a fallible mind. This lets the reader trust in your prose. With a really good book, the reader forgets they’re looking at words. They fall into the spell.

As far as possible, you want your beta readers to concentrate on the book’s content. If the manuscript is littered with literals, they’ll probably correct those instead, even if you tell them to ignore them. That’s a waste of their contribution. So if grammar and spelling are your weaknesses, find one beta reader who’s willing to clean it up for you, then give a sparkling manuscript to the others.

You mentioned that self-publishing allows us to publish whatever we like, across a variety of genres if we want. How do we do that without confusing readers?

This is where your platform comes into its own. Explain it in all the places you talk to readers – your website, your blog, your newsletter, Facebook. Make a virtue of this variety, make it part of your evolving artistic identity. If you develop a new direction, include them in the big adventure. A few years ago, I found myself writing a travel memoir. At first, this seemed ridiculous – who’d read a memoir by me? Here’s how I introduced it, collywobbles and all ‘A book I didn’t expect to write’.

A month later, I was more confident that it wouldn’t be an embarrassing mess, so I felt able to share details.  ‘That book…’

Because you have this direct contact with readers, you can take them with you as your interests evolve.

When you update the back matter of your existing books, explain that you have a varied catalogue.  For instance: ‘As well as contemporary fiction I also write light-hearted travel memoir and books on writing.’ Or: ‘I have an alter ego as a grief counsellor…

You could make a distinction by using a pseudonym or a variation of your name with initials. There’s more about this in this post. In that post I considered the extra burden of running multiple names or variations, but David Gaughran adds another consideration in his book Amazon Decoded. He says the ‘also boughts’ list on Amazon can be confused if you use the same name for different kinds of book, and that this might mean Amazon recommends your work to the wrong kind of readers, and then notices the conversion rates aren’t good and stops recommending your book at all. But a simple change to your name, such as an initial, can make you look like two different people to the algorithm.

How much difference is too much? That depends. Not everyone will be interested in all your work, especially if you write strictly within fiction genres. You might want to separate your newsletter list, for instance, because your lighthearted contemporary romances might not appeal to readers of your Transylvanian historical sagas. But if you’re less easily categorised, your work is more about you, your outlook, your curiosities and your voice, so a reader of one of your books might well enjoy all the rest.

You talked a lot in the course about how self-publishing allows you a lot more control than traditional publishing… Where do you most like having control?

Everyone’s different! Some indies like being in control of the marketing and presentation. For me, I relish the detailed process of making the book and passing it for press. I’m lucky that this is also my job in non-writing life – I’m a magazine sub. So I don’t like someone else to have my text files or make changes to them. I want to make the corrections myself so I know they’ve been done – and that they haven’t spawned any unintended consequences, which often happens. That’s my favourite part, aside from the writing.

(Thanks for the manuscript pic, Muckster)

Your turn! I’m taking more questions about self-publishing… and anything else you’d like to contribute on the questions I’ve answered here. If you’ve self-published, what’s your favourite part? What parts of the process do you not enjoy?

And how is my latest book shaping up? More here in my newsletter

, , , , , , ,

1 Comment

How to write books for children and young adults – Ep42 FREE podcast for authors

Writing for children. It’s harder than you think. It’s simpler than you think. What are the misconceptions? What makes a really great book for children? What are the main age bands and what are the rules for each? What about YA and books for teenagers?

If there’s somebody who can tell you about this, it’s my co-host, independent bookseller Peter Snell.

Stream from the widget below or go to our Mixcloud page and binge the whole lot.

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

 

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment

What’s on an author’s bookshelf? Ep 41 FREE podcast for writers

What books does a working author keep to hand? Books for reference. Books for quick answers. Books on craft. Books for inspiration. A simple question, with surprising answers.

My co-host is independent bookseller Peter Snell. Stream from the widget below or go to our Mixcloud page and binge the whole lot.

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

, , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

How to write a sequel – and when not to. Ep 40 FREE podcast for authors

When we recorded this, sequels were a hot topic in bookworld. Go Set A Watchman, a sequel to Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mocking Bird, had just been released. Many people were curious but also dubious. The top FAQ on Google is ‘Is Go Set A Watchman worth reading?’

So when does a book deserve a sequel? When is one book enough? When do you add something worthwhile and when do you outstay your welcome? And actually, if you’re au fait with Ms Lee, you’ll know that the Watchman/Mockingbird situation isn’t as straightforward as book/sequel. Mockingbird was originally created from the back story of Watchman, at a publisher’s suggestion. Complicated. But one book is still derived from the other, so as far as we’re concerned, that counts.

My co-host is independent bookseller Peter Snell. Stream from the widget below or go to our Mixcloud page and binge the whole lot.

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

, , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment