Archive for category How to write a book

Ruinlust and where ideas come from – guest post at Davida Chazan aka The Chocolate Lady

Ruinlust. It’s a word that means ‘the unseemly feeling of attraction to abandoned places and crumbling buildings’. At least, that’s what Robert Macfarlane said when I had a chat with him about it on Twitter. And if anyone would know, he would. (Here’s why.)

I don’t understand the ‘unseemly’ part, though I suspect Husband Dave might. He is not as ruinlustful as I am. (‘Must we trek all that way to look at that half-derelict tower, Roz?’)

Anyway, how is this connected with ideas and where they come from?

When book blogger Davida Chazan (The Chocolate Lady) reviewed Not Quite Lost, she pounced on a note in the afterword where I mentioned the settings that had appeared in my fiction. A magnificent decaying mansion in Devon. The remains of drowned towns in Suffolk. They were the seeds of Lifeform Three. Ruinlust, through and through.

But settings can give you more than just a sense of place. As I edited, I had a surprise. I wasn’t just dusting off old anecdotes, I was digging the archeology of my own themes and curiosities. Memory, identity. Buried histories. (More about that here.)

Davida asked me to come to her blog and write a proper post about it. It seems that even if you go back into your own past, it’s still a new journey. Out of sight, not out of mind. Do come over.







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Readers’ reasons; writers’ reasons – do they ever agree?

I recently had an email from a friend who has a literature PhD. He had read My Memories of a Future Life and wrote me a long, detailed response. Eleven pages, actually, which was quite daunting to open. Somewhat nervously, I read it. I needn’t have worried. It was kind and appreciative.

Indeed, it seemed to give me credit for a number of clever effects that were mainly accidental, not deliberate as he seems to have imagined. 

For instance, my decision to give Gene Winter a leather bomber jacket. My faithful chronicler unpicked this as ‘bombing, linked to war – a sign that he will be destructive character’.

My actual reasons for Gene’s outfit were far more practical. I needed him to appear hunched, as if he was keeping the world out. A bomber jacket gives that postural shape in the reader’s mind. I could have left the kind of leather jacket vague, but then it might have suggested a scruffy biker. A different kind of bearing. So Gene wore a bomber jacket.

My friend also observed that Andreq, Carol’s incarnation in the future, is like a geisha. Once he’d drawn that parallel, he found more layers, exploring how geisha inhabit a separate reality, as Andreq does, and Carol has a different reality when she performs, and ‘recreates the spiritual environment that a piece of music represents, just as would a geisha with her client’.

Again, this seemed to give me credit for a lot more calculation than I actually did. When I wrote, I had much simpler aims. I was thinking only of the resonances between my two characters, Carol and Andreq. Though I’m very relieved that this aspect of the book made wider cultural sense.

Reading this essay, I was seeing the book in a new register. There are writers’ reasons and then there are the reasons readers find. Are they necessarily in tune?

I posted about this on Facebook and a merry discussion ensued. Some were reminded of school essays where they’d had to dissect texts for hidden meanings, which they were sure the author hadn’t consciously planted. This is just a fireplace. Anything else you can see is your own problem.

Of course, this is not to say we don’t take care when we write. Every word, image and phrase in My Memories of a Future Life was deliberately placed – but for reasons that were more to do with plausibility and nuance. My priority was controlling the reader’s emotional experience. With Gene’s jacket I was trying not to give a wrong impression, but in my friend’s essay it became a standout signal of its own.

That doesn’t mean I dismiss my friend’s analysis – not in the slightest. His version of the book is just as valid as mine. I wonder if he’d be disappointed to know how those creative decisions were made – that some of the effects he appreciated seem to me to be lucky accidents.

Fundamentally, I think this is a difference between writers and certain kinds of reader. I’m sure many writers are working more on gut than on grey cells.

This recent post at the Literary Hub rounded up a clutch of authors who didn’t have a formal writing education. They learned principally from reading and from life. It wasn’t study; it was an emotional process, a state of eternal noticing, a response as natural as breathing.

One of those writers, Ray Bradbury, I featured in my Guardian masterclass on self-editing. I took the beginning of Fahrenheit 451 and used my beat sheet method to study its structure. I found contrasts and balances that I hadn’t been aware of, subtle ways in which Bradbury plays with our expectations that add to the book’s enthralling effect. The book is itself a masterclass in pacing, balance and contrast (I’ve talked about that here) . In reality, I suspect Bradbury did most of it by instinct rather than by conscious design, but if you put the book through that process, it’s there.

I’ve written before about what creative writing teachers teach.   Mostly we direct a sensitivity that is already innate, and awaken the blind areas. The other side of the coin – the learning – is about building habits: first consciously, then so that they become second nature (I’ve written about that here – the three ages of becoming a writer). An example: at first you might have to be told to prefigure a major reversal; after a while, it’s something you knit into the story by gut feeling.

Earlier in this post I talked about ‘controlling the reader’s experience’. You might have laughed in a hollow way because I seem to be proving precisely the opposite. We hope we’re directing the reader to notice the things we want, but actually they scoot off into the text like gerbils and chew random things.

In the end, readers bring themselves to a book. One friend drew a parallel with his work in IT – he said you never knew how a piece of software would work until the users told you. I suppose that’s what we’re doing. Our ‘product’ isn’t even a tangible thing like a theatre production or a picture or a sofa. It’s squiggles on a page or a screen that perform a transforming effect on the reader’s mind and emotions. A novel is code, and we can’t even definitively tell you how we assemble it or how it works.

So I guess that makes it magic too. Do give me your thoughts.

More about the beat sheet? You can find it in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence.

Thanks for the chicken pic Christian Bortes on Flickr and thanks Cat Muir for the dancing fireplace.

Oh and this little thing is less than a month to lift-off. Rather excited. Here’s my latest newsletter if you want to catch up, including a free preview.

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The end of exploration – on writing a book where you can’t make things up

If you get my newsletter or follow me on Facebook or Google+ you’ll have seen dancing and jubilation as Not Quite Lost is finally ready for general parading and pre-order.

It’s certainly been a new kind of writing experience, because, of course, I didn’t have the freedom to invent. (Why? It’s non-fiction. More here.) This set some interesting boundaries for revision.

The pieces that were easiest to edit were the amusing mishaps  – mostly involving idiotic use of cars. Also easy were the fragments about people and places that were intriguing and mysterious. But other pieces gave me more difficulty, refused to spring into shape for a long time. They fell flat for my wise and ruthless beta-readers. ‘You lost my attention here,’ said one of them. But… but….. but… I thought.  There’s something in that story.

When a piece in a novel isn’t working but my gut tells me I want it in the book, I change the circumstances, add pressures in the characters’ lives or give the event to another set of people. Clearly I couldn’t do that in Not Quite Lost. It must stick to the truth. You can change details of people to prevent them being identified, but you can’t change events. You’re stuck with them.

So what do you do?

I’ve edited memoirs and I recognised the situation. If an incident seemed to lack significance but the writer insisted on keeping it, we dug deeper. Why did it matter? There was a subsurface process, a thing that had to be uncovered and examined. These rewritten rejects often became the most surprising and beguiling parts of the story. In short-form memoir, they go by another name – the personal essay. I had failed to recognise that some of the pieces in Not Quite Lost were personal essays as well as travel tales.

Full circle

This week I heard Ann Patchett being interviewed on Radio 4’s Book Club about her novel Bel Canto. One of the points discussed is how each character is like an onion, losing a layer each day until they’re down to the core.

And in the good tradition of ending explorations and arriving where we started, knowing it for the first time, we come full circle to fiction.

My diversion into narrative non-fiction has, at times, felt like writing pieces of a novel. It’s also given me a sharper view of a quality I value in literary fiction. ‘Literary’ is a slippery thing to define, and I enjoy playing with fresh interpretations. So my current favourite definition is that a literary novel is, in some ways, like a personal essay for the characters, peeling away a skin at a time.

Anyway, Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction is now on pre-order. And it looks like this.


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On publishing another book when there are already so many

Didn’t I say in January that I had a book I would write quickly? A book based on my travel diaries. A book that should have required a quick spit and polish, then out of the nest it would go.

But no, the months have passed, and if you followed my newsletter you’ll have seen the progress through rough edits, reconcepting, purge of darlings, second purge of darlings, beta reader 1, beta reader 2, reader 3, reader 4, final polish, snapshots of typesetting on Facebook and final sigh of relief.

January to July: seven months to take a book from personal notes to publicly presentable. It was a lot more work than I thought it would be, but still quite fast by my usual standards.

I haven’t been doing it full time, of course. My usual freelance editing gigs have snowballed, and sometimes I’ve been fighting to protect a few hours for my book. Equally, it’s benefited from being consigned to the basement, cogitating. If I’d had an uninterrupted run, it wouldn’t be the book it is.

Finding a destination

‘Finding a destination’ is generally the biggest challenge of the bookwriting process for me. It’s what takes literary writers so long (which I posted about here).

It also doesn’t seem confined to writing, by any means. I recently stumbled across these lines in an obituary published in The Economist of the mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani:

By her own account, she was “slow” …. she teased out solutions by doodling for hours on vast sheets of paper … the point, she said, was not to write down all the details, but to stay connected to the problem. She likened mathematical enquiry to being lost in a forest, gathering knowledge, to come up with some new tricks, until you suddenly reach a hilltop and see everything clearly.’

I’m a card-carrying slowcoach, and I see this same struggle in the Facebook feeds of writer friends. It’s the hell of book writing, and also, eventually the heaven. You did it. You persevered, you made a substantial something out of fat nothing; just a notion that took your fancy or kept you fretting. The fact that it took so long is, in the end, part of the triumph. You persevered with a possibility that no one else saw, shaped it in a way that no one else would. Finally, a stranger can take your trip and say ‘I never went there before’.


So far, so personally rewarding. But we stumble over the finish line and into an immovable fact. This cherished, nurtured, shiny new book is a speck in a sea of plankton. There are not enough eyes to read all the books that are published. It’s the best of times to be a writer and the worst of times to try to make a living at it, or run a publishing company. The Guardian recently published this piece with a bleak view, which we can boil down to this: barring a miracle, hardly anybody will buy it.

So does the world need my new book?

We have so many already. Good books; great books. The human condition doesn’t change.

Certainly it doesn’t, and Chaucer still resonates now. I’ll read a book from the 1950s as readily as the 2000teens. Dave keeps urging me to read New Grub Street by George Gissing, which was published in 1891 and nails the creative industries exactly as they are today. But sometimes we want the company of contemporary minds. People might not change, but the world will always do things that are, for better or worse, unpresidented.

Even if your work is not tackling current issues, it still comes through contemporary sensibilities. Although authors primarily write for their own reasons – personal fulfilment, making a living – the world does still need them.

The duty we have now is to publish only what deserves to be. To use a reader’s time wisely and responsibly.

Still, why write?

But selling books can be so soul-shrivelling, particularly today. So why do we still write more? We do it because the long process of conversation with an idea, like Maryam the mathematician, is intrinsic to those who are creative. Even though it’s often agony to face a blank page. The writer in the Guardian goes back into her cycle, the way we all do – not knowing if she has the goods to do it again.

The selfish gene?

Is that primarily a selfish process? It must seem so. But at the least, it must make us wiser people. To understand our own themes forces us to see them from more sides than just our own. We might delve a long way in research to write a situation truthfully. To create a character who isn’t a stereotype, we might have to admire their flaws or be critical of their virtues. Our invented people teach us tolerance and generosity.

Even my travel tales – which were not invented –  had to be revisited with a more critical eye.

And so, for better or for worse, I have a new book. Because that is what I do.

Not Quite Lost – Travels Without A Sense of Direction will be available on preorder soon -watch this space.

Still time to grab this bargain! You have until the end of July to grab a special offer on Nail Your Novel – Amazon have chosen it for a Book Of The Month deal, so the Kindle edition is just USD$1.99.

Bargain! again! – Last chance to read my novels FREE and choose from hundreds more titles on subscription service Bookmate – exclusive code at this link.

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Suspense: storytelling’s big tease – guest post at Writers Helping Writers

I’m at Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s blog today with a post about how to use suspense. I think I first mentioned it on this blog a few weeks ago, but actually I got the date wrong, so you might have been waiting a while for this.

Which is exactly how suspense works, of course. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

Bargain! Don’t forget there’s a special offer on Nail Your Novel – Amazon have chosen it for a Book Of The Month deal, so the Kindle edition is just USD$1.99.

Bargain! again! – Read my novels FREE and choose from hundreds more titles on subscription service Bookmate – exclusive code at this link.

Now, hie yourself over to the suspense department to read the post. I see you shiver with antici…


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Fictional characters – a lesson from Seinfeld

Dave has recently been developing a sitcom, which has led to interesting conversations about the characteristics of the form. To get a feel for it, we have been watching Seinfeld – and especially the season where they write a TV show ‘about nothing’.

At the risk of sounding precious, this phrase ‘A show about nothing’ seems to be the key to the entire sitcom form. Not just Seinfeld, but sitcoms generally. And more widely – which is why I’m bothering you with it here – I think some of its principles could be used to make all fictional characters a little more lifelike.

So – in a sitcom we generally watch characters in everyday life, doing their thing. There aren’t any big changes in the status quo (and if there are any coming in Seinfeld, please don’t tell me as we’re only on Season 4). The pleasure and entertainment comes from watching the characters deal with endless small stories and challenges, which are mainly caused by their personalities. (Yes, even in Red Dwarf.) It’s essential that the characters become pretty exasperated with each other, but only up to a point – no matter what happens, they continue to rub along together.

The mad neighbour Kramer isn’t going to move to a different block (or if he is, he’ll be back by the end of the episode). George louses up the TV deal with NBC with some agonisingly inept negotiating, but Jerry continues to work and hang out with him.

Equilibrium of irritation

In Seinfeld, as in most sitcoms, an abiding principle is that life goes on, relationships go on (think of the 1970s BBC sitcoms like The Good Life). Sitcoms are about people being themselves and accommodating each other in an equilibrium of irritation.

Of course, certain characteristics are exaggerated for comedy, but even so, the sitcom is very true to life, and it struck me that we can use the ‘equilibrium of irritation’ to add richness to characters in a story that has a bigger dramatic arc.

Obviously your main characters will go through a big change, but there will be other aspects of life in the story that don’t. These are sometimes underdeveloped – usually because we’ve been looking at the big picture. But instead, they could cause strife that is colourful, charming, exasperating and human. This could give plausible complexity to characters, and depth to the ordinary grift of their lives.

Again, Seinfeld is deliberately amplified for comedy – the neighbour is madder than most neighbours the rest of us have. George is a walking disaster. Seinfeld world isn’t intended to be 100% realistic. But there’s one aspect that I find very realistic – the way the characters rub along day to day.

The magazine episode

Here’s an example. On a magazine I worked on, I had a boss who I’ll call Jim. Jim was often alarmed at my zeal for rewriting articles to make them zap. He warned me gently that if I did that, the reporters might become slapdash because they knew I’d do a final polish.

I’d get in a huff, saying ‘I can’t leave the article in that state – look at all that dull repetition’.

Jim would say: ‘Just skim it to check it’s usable. We have a 120-page issue to get out, we don’t have time for fine editing and we need to leave the writing to the reporters’.

Fuming cloud over Roz’s head.

Jim’s other sub-editor, who I’ll call Wendy, had worked there for 10 years, knew all the routines, and worked according to Jim’s system. She skimmed the copy for obvious bloopers but didn’t wield the scalpel. But Wendy sometimes missed important mistakes and indeed Jim would often be exasperated at this.

And here we have the Sitcom of Jim. Life would never run smoothly. It had these two opposite characters, who created low-level strife on a weekly basis, and who he probably beefed about to his friends –  Roz who was going to upset the system and make the well-trained reporters think they could hand in rougher copy. And Wendy who knew all the systems but was slow and unreliable. And Jim just had to get along with us as well as he could.

The Sitcom of Jim had no arc or end. It was a set of personalities and values that aligned in some ways and clashed in others, and was utterly intrinsic to who we were.

The Sitcom of You

Life is full of dynamics like this, with families, friends, colleagues… All these people in our lives need certain amounts of circumvention and handling. There’s the close friend you can’t tell about your work troubles because they’ll simply tell you to get a different job. There are the old friends who can’t be invited to dinner with certain others because they irritate the bejesus out of them, or have politically incompatible views even though you love them dearly, or whose dietary preferences are too bizarrely restrictive to inflict on anyone else. (I note there’s a Seinfeld episode called The Dinner Party but I haven’t seen it yet – no spoilers, please.)

We are all playing the balancing acts of sitcoms in many areas of our lives, and these relationships will keep ticking along in the same constant way. This push-pull accommodation is the stuff of life. And in books, it’s often missing, especially with supporting characters – and so relationships might read as bland and undercooked.

The truth

Of course, you have to tailor this kind of material to fit with the tone. I’m not suggesting you add comedy willy-nilly, or deluge the reader with distracting trivialities. You may only need a very small amount of this kind of material. Indeed you might just keep it as developmental notes that let you write the characters with more knowledge, and keep it 90% under cover. Adjust to taste and the needs of your genre.

But this kind of material can create characters that live and breathe on their own, with independent life – instead of plot zombies.

And you never know – as with all developmental work, the sitcom jottings might blossom into something significant.

Thanks for the Seinfeld apartment pic Tony Hoffarth on Flickr

There’s a lot more about character development in the Nail Your Novel characters book.

And you might also like to know that Amazon has chosen the original Nail Your Novel for a special promotion. The Kindle edition is just USD1.99 right now. I’m not sure how long the promotion will last for as it’s controlled by them – so grab a copy now!



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A plea for reviewers – can we open up a dialogue about self-published books?

So I find a lovely-looking review blog. The posts are thoughtful, fair and seriously considered. I look up the review policy and … it says ‘no self-published books’.

Today I want to open a dialogue with reviewers. If you have that policy, might you be persuaded to change it? Or to approach the problem in a different way?

I used the word ‘problem’. Because I appreciate – very well – that in making this policy you are trying to tackle a major problem. Your time as a reviewer is precious – and let me say your efforts are enormously appreciated by readers and authors alike. You get pitches for many more books than you can read and you need a way to fillet out the ones that are seriously worth your reading hours. A blanket ban is a way to fend off a lot of substandard material and save you many unpleasant conversations. And traditional publishing implies a certain benchmark of competence.

Competence. That’s probably the heart of the matter. There are good self-published books, of course, but how can I help you sort them from the bad and the fug-ugly?

Most people would probably tell you to look at the presentation – whether the cover and interior look professional, and the blurb looks authoritative and slick. But to be blunt, pigs can be well disguised by the right kind of lipstick. Still thinking in pig, a good sausage and a bad sausage look mostly the same on the outside.

No, instead, I urge you to do this. Look at the author.

The author

Consider the following:

  • What experience do they have of publishing? Do they know how much meticulous polishing a book should have? Have they already been traditionally published, and learned what it takes?
  • Do they give the impression that they are wise and competent enough to make responsible publishing decisions?
  • Look at their online persona – do you think they’d act on professional feedback, and would they have the self-discipline and pride to give the book another revision if a pro told them it wasn’t yet ready?

Underbaked books

Yes, it has to be admitted that some books are published too early. A release date is decided, and sometimes there is no time for the author to do a rewrite, even if the manuscript badly needs it. The editorial people do the best they can in the time available, tidying up the typos and inconsistencies – or sometimes they don’t even have time for that. I’ve been involved with books like this – and industry friends have too.

Sounds like a ghastly compromise, doesn’t it? And do you know, the examples I have in mind are not self-published books. They’re books produced by traditional publishing houses. I promise on my honour, this happens and it’s not even uncommon.

Manuscripts that have already been published in hardback often get another proof-read before they release in paperback – and all manner of unholy errors come to light. Not just the odd typo, but fundamental goofs with credibility and consistency. And major craft issues like head-hopping. I can’t count the number of published books – yea, even those from trad houses – where the author hasn’t grasped point of view. When characters start talking about things they can’t possibly know, it can slap a reader right out of the story.

So it’s not safe to assume that a trad published book has superior quality control.

But, you might ask, who is doing the quality control on an indie author’s book? Well, the trad houses use freelances – freelances who are also now working with indie authors. It’s the editors who guide the book, line by line, into a publishable shape – so indie authors who use them are getting exactly the same degree of professional stewardship as authors who are published by an established imprint. And, if they’ve been sensible with their schedules, these authors might be able to use the editor’s contribution more fully. (Here’s a post where I give advice on how to build in time to use your editorial experts properly.)

But all the good authors get book deals, don’t they?

No. They don’t. A book deal isn’t like an academic qualification – you hit the standard, you get the badge. That’s one of publishing’s biggest myths. Here’s the reality – a book deal is awarded to writers whose work fits current marketing needs. Big, big difference. Here’s a unicorn.

Thank you, Catherine on Flickr

Let me tell you a story to illustrate what it’s really like. I have a friend who’s a senior editor at one of the Big 5. A decade ago she published a set of novels that were well reviewed, got a five-figure advance – the full fanfare. She’s now come out with a new novel, which has seriously impressed an agent. But.

What’s the but? The market has moved on and isn’t looking for books like hers. On its own terms – as a reading experience – the book is her best ever. Her old fans would probably love it too. Her original books are still finding a steady trickle of new readers. She’s made the grade, dammit, but that book does not fit today’s market.

And what’s she doing? She’s seeking my advice on self-publishing. As is another friend who got his original publishing deal by winning a national award, and then went on to publish 10 highly acclaimed novels.

These are some of the people who are self-publishing. Senior figures in the industry. Prizewinning authors. People of solid publishing pedigree. And they’re probably even better authors than when they started because they’ve grown as writers and people. Other kinds of people who self-publish responsibly include authors who’ve begun under contract and then continued as self-publishers; authors who have released their books once they went out of print; authors who’ve published in very commercial areas but would like to publish with more creative control – me, for instance, but I’m not alone. Purely as an example, here’s my story.

Some book deals are unacceptable to authors

Even if an author ticks the marketing boxes, they might prefer not to accept a deal. Not just because of money or royalty rates, but because of other clauses that have long-term consequences. Two that particularly deserve attention are rights grabs and reversion clauses. Here’s a shark.

Two technical terms
What’s a rights grab? A book contract is a grant of the right to publish in a particular format. A book could be published in many formats or ‘products’ – an ebook, a print book, an audiobook, a movie script, a TV adaptation, an interactive app, a workbook. And it could be all these, multiple times, in all languages (translation rights) and other English speaking territories (England, US, Australia etc). A rights grab usually tries to get as many of these in one deal without paying extra for them. If the author sold them separately elsewhere, they would usually get a better deal. Publishers are usually not keen on this.

What’s a reversion clause? A book doesn’t have to ‘belong’ to a publisher for life. Indeed, a book often goes out of print, which means the author could then take it back and find a new publisher for it, or publish it themselves. So contracts should have a reversion clause – but if the terms of this aren’t fair, that book might completely disappear. For many authors who are building a body of work, that’s simply not acceptable.

Sometimes, a publishing deal doesn’t make business sense to the author, even with the kudos.

Dealing directly with authors

Now this is tricky. If you review traditionally published books, you might deal with third parties – publicity departments or services such as NetGalley. If you don’t like a book or choose not to review it, you don’t have to explain or justify anything to the sensitive person who wrote it. But indie authors might contact you directly, and it could get difficult.

So here’s a plea to authors. If a reviewer has agreed to look at your book, send it and then … forget about it. Don’t hassle to see whether it’s being read or when the review will be published. In the publishing ecosystem, far more copies get sent out than are reviewed. They slip through the net for all sorts of reasons, many of them unrelated to the book itself. Don’t hound a reviewer to give you feedback. Fire, forget and move on.

The author as creative director

We are in an age where more authors will be their own creative directors – for artistic reasons and financial ones (we haven’t even mentioned creative control, but that’s another factor for committed authors with their eye on the long game). A lot of the new, important voices will come up through self-publishing because traditional publishing will have to play safer and safer. And a lot more of your favourite authors will be continuing their body of work by self-publishing.

So if an author can prove they have the necessary maturity and wisdom, would you give them a try?

A few more things to chew over.

Here’s a post about highly commercial publishing and creative control.

Just to confuse matters even more, here’s how the boundaries between traditional publishing and self-publishing are blurring.

And here’s a post about how we’ve – thankfully – moved on from the bad old days of ‘vanity publishing’.

I’d like to take this debate forward in a helpful way. Book bloggers and reviewers, you set your policies for thoroughly sound reasons. Would you share them here? If you accept indies, how do you make this work? And if you don’t, what are your concerns? I’d like to understand them. What would you need to know about a self-published author to consider one of their books?

What am I working on at the moment? My latest newsletter



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Writing the perfect love triangle – guest post at Writers Helping Writers

I haven’t had a hardcore writing post for a while, so today I’m making up for that. Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi have invited me to their blog to be a guest tutor, and the subject I’ve chosen is love triangles. In spring, a young man’s fancy, etc etc.

Seriously, though, it’s a potent ingredient that can spice up any story, whether it’s centre stage or a dalliance in the wings of the main plot, and can fit into any genre. So I’ve worked out some ground rules to help you make the most of it. Do come over.


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Slow-burn books, publishing misfits and separation anxiety – interview at Henry Hyde’s blog

My friend Henry Hyde is kicking off a series on his blog called Writing Insights, and I’m honoured to be his first guinea pig. He asked me questions about my writing methods, publishing decisions and advice I would have given myself as a beginner, which led to discussions of separation anxiety, misfit books and novels that take their sweet long time to develop. Do come over.

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Dear me: how fiction authors adapt to writing memoir

If you’ve been following me on Facebook or on my newsletter you’ll have seen I’m taking a creative interlude to work on a collection of travel memoir pieces. It’s a new kind of book for me and it’s raising some interesting challenges, particularly as I’m used to the freedoms of fiction.

So I thought I’d gather together a few other fictioneers who’ve crossed into memoir to discuss the differences.

Let’s meet our novelists-turned-memoirists.

Jean Gill

Jean Gill @writerjeangill has published in a wide variety of genres – historical fiction, fiction in translation, teen novels and a goat cheese cookbook. Her memoir, How Blue Is My Valley, is an as-it-happens account of her first year living in Provence.

Joni Rodgers

Joni Rodgers, who you might recognise from The Undercover Soundtrack and this post about ghostwriters and their soul projects,  had two novels published by small literary publishers, and then a big bestseller with her cancer memoir Bald in the Land of Big Hair, which kicked off a career as a ghostwriter of celebrity memoirs. She has continued to write fiction, and her second memoir is an account of her hybrid publishing adventures: First You Write: The Worst Way to Become an Almost Famous Author and the Best Advice I Got While Doing It.

Jessica Bell

Jessica Bell @msbessiebell will also be familiar from The Undercover Soundtrack. She’s a musician, writing coach, graphic designer and publisher, has released seven books of fiction and verse, and is about to release her memoir Dear Reflection: I Never Meant To Be A Rebel, about her dysfunctional childhood, teen years and music career.

Real events

The most obvious difference between novels and memoir is, of course, real events. And this creates an artistic problem. Real life is messy; it lacks the structures that do much of a novel’s work. Personally I’m enjoying it; the need to stay within boundaries is a challenge. I asked my authors about the main challenges they faced with their material.


Joni: ‘The least interesting thing in a cancer memoir is the cancer. I had to distil the complex medical aspects of the story in a way that did justice to my experience while maintaining a compelling pace for the reader. I won’t even pretend I did that on autopilot. I had a terrific editor with an unsparing eye.’

Jean faced an additional challenge with her book because she was writing without a predetermined shape. It was a day-to-day diary of events as they unfolded. ‘Authors with any sense write memoirs looking back, so they can find patterns and resolutions. Instead, I was writing the book ‘live’ as workmen destroyed the house around me and I had no idea what was going to happen next. I haven’t kept a diary since the ones I gave up as a teenager with cryptic codewords.’

Jean says her approach paid off, though. ‘Fans have told me this is part of the book’s charm. The immediacy of all those first impressions, of being in love with Provence, is not filtered by artistic shaping. Moving to another country is always about what you take with you: physically, mentally and emotionally. I came to understand that from writing my memoir.’

How we come across

One of the hardest things to judge with such a personal book is how we’re coming across. As the writer, we know everything and the reader knows nothing, and I know I’m going to be relying on beta readers more heavily than usual. Joni and Jessica say they couldn’t have done it without editorial support.

Joni: ‘Beta readers and a good editor are crucial. I’ve had the good fortune to be edited and mentored by amazing professionals at Big Five publishers and prestigious small presses, so maybe I’m spoiled, but candidly, I was disappointed in the editor I hired to do First You Write. Even more disappointed in the copy editor. Fortunately, my beta readers were top drawer. The Midwives, my critique group at the time, was an amazing posse of well-read, widely published authors, including Barbara Taylor Sissel and Colleen Thompson. That crit group was one of the best things that ever happened to me professionally and personally.’

Jessica says she also could not have done without a professional editor. She began by writing her book as vignettes, then attempted to fill the gaps. But I knew deep down that they were not satisfactory. When I invested in a professional editor, I discovered that many details were lacking. Because I knew my life so well, I didn’t have the same need, or instinct, to explore every fine detail like I do when writing fiction. When writing fiction, I am completely immersed in the details, and also creating those details for myself. When writing memoir, those details already exist. It’s so easy to not realize they aren’t apparent to your reader. The effort it took to dig them out was my biggest hurdle. I felt like I was constantly repeating myself, when in fact, I wasn’t at all. It’s really interesting how unreliable we are as writers of our own lives. I now know that I will still need that editor with my second, third, and fourth memoir.’

(Modest shuffling of feet: Jessica’s first editor was me. To slip into that role for a moment, I’ve worked on many memoirs and each time it’s a special privilege to be invited to help shape such personal material. I also happen to know that Jessica’s editor for the second version was Dan Holloway, so – a shout-out to him.)

Jean had an unexpected source of feedback when her memoir was being made into an audiobook: ‘If you want to know how you come across, nothing beats having to listen to the narration and having to explain to a top voice actor just how funny you thought that sentence was. Even now, the thought makes me hot with embarrassment.’

Real people

Inevitably some people in our memoir will be recognisable. What do we do about that?

Jean says: ‘I changed the names of all but immediate family and I let my sisters read it beforehand, so they could raise any objections. They didn’t.’

I’ve also been contacting people who are recognisable and letting them read the relevant excerpts. And Jean brings up another principle that I’m following: ‘I considered every word I wrote from the viewpoint of that person reading about themselves. Ask me again in a year’s time as the book is being translated into French, so all the villagers will be able to read it. My hairdresser has promised to let me know if we need to sell up and leave the village.’

Jessica says she asked permission from family and close friends to reveal their true identities. And that was nerve-wracking – I remember having a conversation with her behind the scenes on Facebook as she gathered the courage to show the manuscript to her mother.

‘I’m very lucky they gave permission,’ she says. ‘For those I don’t have contact with (or don’t wish to contact) I’ve changed physical attributes, names, and certain characteristics. Sometimes three people have been merged into one character. People who know me and the people in my memoir will most likely be able to work out who is who; I don’t think there is any way to avoid this. The only thing we can do is change our characters enough so that they can’t be recognised by random readers.’

Joni had to write about her family in close detail during traumatic events, especially her husband, Gary. I asked whether that was awkward.  ‘I did struggle with this invasion of Gary’s privacy. He was supportive in a very unexpected way: he didn’t read the book. He said he wanted me to tell the story I needed to tell without feeling like he was looking over my shoulder. To this day, he hasn’t read it. The one concession he asked was that I decline an option on film rights, even though we desperately needed the money. Chemo left us bankrupt. Thanks, American healthcare system! When the film option came up, our children were still small, and I wasn’t in remission. Gary and I agreed that if I died, a movie could be confusing and unhealthy for our kids in later years.’

With that in mind, I think we need a brief feelgood interlude. Here’s a very soppy picture of Joni and Gary.


The difficult memories

Jessica had to steel herself to revisit some of the events in her book and was tempted to leave them out. ‘I had a really hard time writing about them. But my editor convinced me to bite the bullet.’ (Just call me Rozweiler.)

Joni also had to grapple with difficult memories. ‘My desire to help other women with cancer far outweighed any awkwardness. Cancer destroyed me physically, emotionally, spiritually, sexually, and financially, and while I was in that crucible, I craved honest conversation about taboo topics like money and sex. To leave out the awkward and even humiliating moments in that story would have been a disservice to readers with cancer, and it would have felt dishonest to me.’

What to leave out?

And not everything belongs in your memoir. Joni says: If life is a sprawling country garden, a memoir is a cut flower arrangement. Choices have to be made, and some are difficult. Here again, I have to sing the praises of my editor, the late, great Marjorie Braman at HarperCollins. Throughout the process, Marjorie focused a single beam of light—the book’s reason for being—on every anecdote, character, sentence, syllable. Much of what I know and practise as an editor now, I learned from Marjorie as we worked through Bald in the Land of Big Hair and my subsequent novel, The Secret Sisters. She never told me what to do, but she always asked the right questions.’

That pruning process might not be straightforward. Jean says that at the time of writing, one of her children was very depressed, and she found her own feelings of helplessness overwhelming. ‘This memoir wasn’t about trauma or therapy so the details of my private life were irrelevant. But I felt silly writing happy little thoughts without acknowledging that pain. This is how I dealt with it. I acknowledged it for the only person who mattered to understand:

‘Happiness is an utterly selfish emotion. How can you be happy when someone close to you, isn’t? How can you be happy in the face of war, starvation, poverty… And yet. How does your misery change others’ lives for the better? Who is helped by your depression? Isn’t it from some kind of secure self that you can reach out a helping hand?’

We are made of many memoirs

But Jessica says each of us might have many memoirs in us. ‘Just because something has happened in your life, that doesn’t mean it has a place in the memoir. For example, to the disappointment of those who have gotten to know me online, this memoir doesn’t talk much about my writing career. That’s an entirely different story, unrelated to my child- and teen-hood, and love life and music. And then there’s my humorous and devastating story of running a café-bar in Ithaca, Greece. I realised these didn’t belong in Dear Reflection. They are not related to my psychological struggle. They are related to the side of my personality that is confident and ambitious. And they need their own book.’

So let’s sum up. Here’s the gathered wisdom on writing a memoir:

  • Beta readers and a good editor are crucial for helping us understand how we come across.
  • Seek permission from real people who will be recognisable, and if possible let them read the relevant sections. Change the details of others so they can’t be identified. Consider every word you write about another person as though they were reading it.
  • If your memoir is about difficult experiences, dig deep and remember that these details are part of the honest journey.
  • Not every experience will fit in one memoir. As with fiction, check that everything serves the story you’re telling. If it doesn’t, consider keeping it for another book.

Thank you to my panel. Here’s where you find them

Jean’s blog is here and she’s on Twitter as @writerjeangill.  Jessica’s website is here and she’s @msbessiebell. Joni says she’ll be hosting a memoir writing retreat this autumn, her website is here or you can follow her on Facebook. She says she used to tweet, but as long as Donald Trump is on Twitter, she won’t be.

And if you’re curious about the book I’m working on, there’s more about it here.

Bonus! Here’s an episode of my radio show, So You Want To Be A Writer, where bookseller Peter Snell and I discuss the memoirist’s art.

Any insights to share about writing memoir? Or questions? Fire away.

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