Archive for category The writing business

Writers, stay true to your standards. Long night of the literary soul

3564583787_d0faf36e54_b‘There’s never been a better time to be a writer.’ I’ve seen this mantra frequently over the past few years in blogposts, conference reports and news items. And I don’t disagree there’s been a lot to celebrate.

But from what I see right now, this time is also tougher for authors than ever.

Indie authors feel it in their book sales. Hands up who is in a forum where the chief discussion is ‘what can I do about my dwindling sales?’ ‘Anybody else had a dismal month?’ ‘Should I drop my book’s price, put it on Kindle Unlimited, write something more popular, send out more emails, spend $$$ on a marketing course?’

The traditionally published authors I know are faring little better, with shrinking advances, ill-supported launches – even the authors who have awards to prove their worth.

Last week I was having an email conversation with a wise author friend. As we confided our worries and frustrations, I felt we were describing the state of the author 2015, and were probably echoing many other conversations going on behind closed doors.

So I thought I would open those doors. Come in. Come and see how authors are thinking about their careers right now. And see why, in spite of the rotten state of the book market, we keep the faith and stay true to our standards.

I have permission to quote my friend’s words, but he wanted to remain anonymous. So we’ll call him Oscar, in honour of the internet tradition of attributing everything to Mr Wilde.


Oscar: I’m looking forward to Ever Rest.

RM: It will be a while before Ever Rest is fit to show. When it is, I’m going to look for a new agent. It’s so desperately hard to get fiction noticed, especially if you write odd-lit like me. I have friends in mainstream publishing who give me furious pep-talks about how I’m on a hiding to nothing by publishing literary fiction as an indie. Even my own husband says it. And they’re right. I need a way to prove myself to the serious reviewers and opinion formers.

An example. I recently applied to the Royal Literary Fund for a grant. I’d been assured by another sponsored author that they would consider a writer who had published two literary novels, but when I checked their rules I found they excluded self-publishing. Nevertheless, I wrote explaining my background, teaching credentials, why I’m indie (more about that here ). Their reply was ‘you haven’t commercially published sufficient work’ and they refused any further discussions. This is the hole we find ourselves in, trying to get indie-published work recognised.

Oscar: You’re a smart lady to be looking for an agent. I’m beginning to think the biggest part of the indie movement is to smack the big machines into better behaviour. They have the money and power to do what we cannot do.

The tides will turn. I watched it happen in photography. Just please keep doing what you’re doing. It’s needed. Without people like you, we could lose literary writing in this mess. And it is a mess. I can’t believe some of the things I’m reading from authors who make big money.

RM: Speaking of which, you’ve no idea how many people who say to me ‘can’t you just toss off a series to get some bestsellers’?

Oscar: I tossed off a series – and then I pulled the books. I felt dirty.

I have an agent friend. In 2014 he was flying high, making sales, getting high-profile assignments, negotiating foreign rights. He said all of that is over now. It’s hard to sell *anything* to a trad house because we’ve lost our attention span for long form. Everybody is on Twitter. No one has the time to read. He has always been a force of nature, enormously talented, confident that he can take on the world. This throws me for a loop.

I check in on Kindleboards now and again. Yesterday I saw an author who started out making $13,000 a MONTH on four poorly written books say she’s now ghosting for other indies to make ends meet. Another author posted about the publication of his new ‘novel’, which is 117 pages long with lots of white space (probably 15K words) and selling for $2.99. Everyone was fawning over him and his swift production.

I saw Joanna Penn remark that we aren’t in competition with each other, but with so many other forms of entertainment. People do *not* sit still for long, unless they’re binging on Netflix for hours on end. How are we to compete with that?

Some authors are doing exceptionally well. They crank out a book a month and direct it at a very young audience that does not yet know the value of a dollar. I know scads of young adults, and they read copious amounts of books, but they’ve got to be free. I nearly blow an artery when I hear them say how poorly written the books are, how many grammar and style errors there are – but they don’t care.

As for craft and quality, in one forum I saw people asking others to stop putting out junk. The remarks degraded, as they always do, to people defending the ‘raw’ writing their fans demanded. Many admitted to using no editors at all, claiming it took the edge off.

RM: [Unprintable. Gentle reader, don’t ask.]

Oscar: My agent said there are precious few of us left with the attention span and appreciation of finely crafted work, and we need to hold on to each other dearly. That’s all fine and well, but how much longer can we continue buying each other’s books?

But it’s not all doom. My partner and I are deeply involved with theatre and have watched that die a slow death, and even Masterpiece Theater removed ‘Theater’ from its name so people won’t get turned off by it. We hang on because it is an eternal artform waiting to be re-born. I believe the same is true for longform, literary novels. It’s a cycle, and the cycles are moving faster.

RM: Right. Who would have thought, five years ago, that Hilary Mantel would be a household name? Listen, while publishing sorts itself out, we write. Have a look at this interview where the musician Sarah Kirkland Snider is talking to Porter Anderson about the sense of connection and completeness we have when we create good work. That’s what it’s about.

Oscar: There is a passage from Nevada to Utah called The Virgin River Gorge. It’s at least a thousand feet deep and so beautiful it makes one’s heart stop. It was carved by a small body of soft water that moved slowly and peacefully because it was the only thing it knew how to do, the only path it could take. With time, it created the impossible and a majestic beauty and monument to the power of unyielding persistence.

Be the water.

Thanks for the pic MCD22

Do you have days like this? How has this year been for you in your writing and publishing career? My door is open.

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How to keep writing when time is scarce – 6 tips and video chat at #IndieReCon15

clocksmWe all have periods when our creative time is nuked. Day jobs, family responsibilities or out-of the-blue crises can make our writing goals streak away into the impossible distance. Even if writing is our chief occupation, there are platforms to build, decisions to mull. And if we self-publish we can add more exacting tasks to the list.

This year I’ve become more aware than ever how scarce my writing time has become. As well as editing work, I’ve got invitations to speak and run courses. I’m thrilled, and happily surprised as I never expected it. I consider myself fantastically lucky to be able to build a career on this art I’ve practised quietly for decades. But if my own novels take a back seat, my soul will shrivel. So this is how I stay on track.


You don’t always need big chunks of writing time. Instead, schedule micro-sessions. Can you set the alarm 20 minutes earlier? Earmark that to spend time with your book’s textfile, planning the next scene, honing the one you’re currently writing, creating your beat sheet if you’re in the revision stage (more about that here). Begin your day with a short stretch of clear, quality book time – and it will travel with you all the rest of the day. I’ve written more about that here.


Develop smart triggers for quick access to your book’s world. If you’ve hung around here for any period of time you’ll know how keen I am on music for this . At the moment, I’m gathering an Undercover Soundtrack for Ever Rest, and it keeps my enthusiasm stoked, reminds me of the book’s world, the characters and their mysteries.

Draw inspiration from everyday life

The more I am immersed in the book, the more I find useful material comes to me – the view out of a window will help me build a scene in a new location, the outfit of a guy on the Tube is how one of my characters will dress.

Baby steps keep your mission clear

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the little glitches that spring up as we write and edit. We can be just as disrupted by new ideas that suggest fresh possibilities. Suddenly our clarity has gone, the book’s getting out of control. The mistake is to try to muddle on with all those new ideas boiling around you. Instead, isolate a question you want to consider, brainstorm it, consider the consequences for one path or another – and when you’re ready, return to the main book. When I bump up against a problem with plot or characters, I scribble it on a scrap of paper and carry it with me so I can work it out without getting confused or derailing the rest of the book.

Remember editing is part of the writing

Some authors regard redrafting as a chore of corrections, a dispiriting process of confronting what we did wrong. And indeed, some authors still don’t realise they can self-edit at all. (I get emails from writers who worry their first draft is turning bad, and want to send it to me for a developmental report.) But revision is 1 – necessary and 2 – an intensively creative opportunity. Most novels get better from multiple visits. The more you edit, the more you understand what your book needs and how to streamline it. More here on this – revision is re-vision.

Find a buddy

I have a writer friend who’s also fiercely defending his writing time, while over-run by a busy career. For a few years now, we’ve been direct messaging on Twitter first thing each morning, a little nudge to say ‘I’m on my book – are you on yours?’ Find a buddy who’s also in danger of drowning, and keep each other accountable.

nyn soloThere’s a lot more on getting your novel finished in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. 

Anyway, here’s the video from IndieReCon 15, which this year was organised by the Alliance of Independent Authors. The other faces are authors Christine Nolfi and David Penny .

And tell me – how do you stay in touch with your writing when time is scarce?

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Whistle-stop tour through a ghostwriting career and beyond – interview at Whitefox

whitefI’d completely forgotten I’d written this interview until it popped up on Twitter today. Whitefox publishing services wanted to quiz me about ghostwriting, my first writing gig and any tips I’d give to writers who were thinking of self-publishing. If you’ve known me for a while the answers will be old hat, but if you’re one of the recent subscribers (thank you!) and are still curious, here it is. If you’re wondering about your publishing options, you’ll find some useful tips here. And if you want advice on weighing up publishing services companies, these posts should help you make sensible decisions. And thank you, Whitefox, for inviting me to your blog.

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How do we label ourselves as writers? Guest spot at Dan Holloway – and the box set is available NOW!

Women-Writing-Women-Box-Set-Cover_finalJPEGsmlForgive the capitals in the title. That’s the problem of being in a group of seven, rather excited writers who’ve been working towards this moment since November. Our ebook collection, Outside The Box: Women Writing Women, went live yesterday. If you pre-ordered it, it will have arrived on your ereader. If pre-orders aren’t your thing, you can grab it right now, because it vanishes on May 24. Oh, and it’s seven full-length novels, so clear a weekend or seven.


authoright 1We’re getting coverage all over the place, including the UK national press. (This is why the release is such a moment of relief and excitement.) But today I want to highlight a particularly thoughtful, searching interview put together by Dan Holloway. He’s asked tricky questions:

Is this collection a marketing idea, a political statement or both? What are our common threads (aside from the possession of two X chromosomes)? danDo they help us come up with a ‘label’ for our diverse range of books? What should that label be? Do labels in fiction cause problems? What about the position of women writers in literary fiction? And, my own favourite: is it better for writers to be ambitious and fall short, or to succeed on more limited terms?

It’s a good discussion. Do come over.

And once again, this is our ensemble. And we are very excited.

WWW head shot bannersml


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Publish traditionally, solo self-publish or something else? Advice for the 2015 writer

2015 writerLast year I wrote a post about whether I’d advise an author to publish or selfpublish. A year on, the landscape for authors is remarkably different – or perhaps not remarkable if you’ve been waiting for a bubble to burst.

Indie authors have seen sales plummet because of the sheer numbers of books available, and subscription schemes such as Kindle Unlimited have created a breed of readers who won’t shop outside a limited free list.

Might this mean it’s better to be traditionally published?

Not from what I’ve seen. My friends with trad deals aren’t having a good time either. Leaving aside royalties and advances (which seem to offer little financial reward for all the hard work writing), their books aren’t getting a decent chance for a long-term future.

A friend whose first novel won a major award in 2012 has just watched his fourth novel launch with no more fanfare than a tiny paragraph in a Sunday paper. His only other support was a training day on a social media course. And don’t even ask about rights grabs – where authors might wait years to reclaim a book to publish it themselves.

Tough times, my friends. So savvy writers will be looking for smarter ways to publish.

Since my last post about this we’ve seen a growing trend for indies to work in collaboration, teaming up with similar authors to release box-sets of ebooks, finding partners to exploit other rights such as translations or audio (either via ACX or other means – here are my posts on my own collaboration with my voice actor Sandy Spangler). Collaborators might be paid up front or in royalty splits. Further back, indies have collaborated by teaming up to create products (like my course with Joanna Penn, now unfortunately nuked by EU VAT rules) or forming long-term collectives (Triskele Books, itself a collective, has been running a series on various well-established collectives ). Joanna Penn has a mighty post about joint ventures with other creatives.

And that’s just the start. I think the authors of 2015 will be watching out for advantageous ways to partner up and we haven’t seen the half of them yet.

Better together
Indies who collaborate get
• shared marketing muscle, to connect with more readers
• shared expertise (editorial feedback, blurb and press release writing)
• shared contacts (editors, proof readers, designers)
• a shoulder to cry on, behind the scenes – and tough love when necessary too.

Does it sound familiar? Indie author collaborations are attempting to create the best of what a traditional publisher does. And this means we should…

View traditional publishing deals as collaborations
And so this means the smartest way to suss out deals from traditional publishers is to consider them as collaborations. What will they do for you that you could not do yourself? What are they asking from you in return? Is it reasonable?

No one I know writes a book to sacrifice it to a bad deal (see my remark about rights grabbing above). On the other hand, no one wants to turn down an opportunity that would be good, as far as can reasonably be forecast in a world of fickle readers and luck.

So this is what I’d say to the 2015 writer who’s asking my advice on whether to selfpublish or query traditional publishers.

1 Whether you intend to go indie or not, learn about selfpublishing

– then you’ll know how to weigh up the value of a publishing deal. As well as the advance (which usually won’t cover the time you spent writing), a publisher offers editorial guidance, copy editing and proof reading, cover design as appropriate for the audience, print book preparation, publicity using their contacts and reputation, print distribution.

Some (not all) are easy to source yourself or make good decisions about. Some can’t even be priced, like the publisher’s reputation – but see my remark above about the award-winning writer with his latest launch. Some of that value might be emotional – the confidence that everything has been done properly. This may not be as guaranteed as you think. There are traditionally published writers who sell enough to get meticulous attention from publishers, and others who get a tired, overworked editor who simply doesn’t have time to do the job as well as they’d like.

The more you know about selfpublishing, the more you can assess a publisher’s value as a partner. If you have tried to produce a quality book yourself, you’ll have a realistic idea of the value a publisher adds – or whether you can do well without them.

2 Be aware of the limits of traditional print and distribution

Distribution of print books is an area where traditional publishers have a clear advantage – (however, the Alliance of Independent Authors is working on a print sales project for indies ). Books in a publisher’s catalogue get promoted by a sales team. You get the heft of their mighty reputation! Result!

But let’s have a reality check. Go into Waterstones or another large book emporium. Look along the shelves where the books are spine-outwards. How many are there? Which ones catch your eye? Probably none of them. They’re the store’s wallpaper. You’re already cover-drunk by the time you’ve passed the books on the tables or in the window or in special display boxes.

Recording a radio show with independent bookseller Peter Snell, surrounded by lovely wallpaper

Recording a radio show, surrounded by lovely wallpaper

A book in a store needs more than a meek slot in the alphabetically-ordered shelves to be discovered by a casual browser, no matter how beautiful its title or cover. So even if your book is going into big stores, it’s unlikely to be found unless it gets special prominence – both in the store and in the wider world. For that, the publisher has to spend money. Independent bookstores are a different matter as the selection is smaller and more personalised, but you still have to hope your book gets emphasised by the sales reps or the store will never hear about it.

3 It isn’t either-or

Whether you start as indie or traditionally published, you won’t always stay that way. Traditionally published authors might leave their publishers (or be dropped) and go it alone. They might selfpublish their backlist. Indie authors might begin on their own, then strike a deal. Some do all of it concurrently (hybrid authors), choosing what’s best for each project.

Some publishers are experimenting with partnering deals, where an author who is experienced in production keeps control of some stages of the editorial process. I like this model very much – it seems a good way to use everyone’s strengths.

Publishing and selfpublishing is now a spectrum. Most writers will zip up and down it, according to where a project fits.

3 Selfpublishing your first book

Don’t be in a rush! Although modern selfpublishing tools let you revise and tweak a naive edition, you cannot edit your reputation. Take your time. Do it properly. You’ve got a lot to learn – about writing to a publishable standard and about publishing itself. The world will wait – but it won’t forget if you mess it up. See my post here about leaving enough time to use editorial feedback.

And finally…

The selfpublishing world is maturing. Suddenly I notice there are a lot of us who have been in this game a few years now, building solid reputations and devoted audiences. I think 2015 will be the year of the exciting collaboration – with other authors, with translators, with artistes from other media (such as voice actors). Perhaps with editors too.

We’ll choose what’s best for each book. We’ll also get more expert at putting a realistic value on contributions, including those of traditional players in publishing, both imprints and agents, and with luck this will lead to deals that are fair and fruitful.

Writing may be solitary. Publishing – and selfpublishing – doesn’t have to be.

Thanks for the dancer pic Lisa Campbell

plotglowThe ebook of Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel is now available on pre-order. It will go on live sale on Twelfth Night, 5th January, and if you order beforehand you can get a special pre-order price.


Have you collaborated on selfpublishing projects – or struck an unorthodox deal with a publisher? Are there any success stories or cautionary tales you’d like to share? How do you feel about the prospects of the solo selfpublisher for 2015? Optimistic? Pessimistic? How do you feel about traditional publishing? Let’s discuss!

AFTERWORD Since I first published this post, Peter Snell and I recorded an edition of the radio show in which we interviewed two founders of an authors’ collective, Triskele Books. They gave us the lowdown on how they formed, how the collective works and the pros and cons. Listen by clicking the clever thingy below.

So You Want To Be A Writer - Episode 28 by Surrey Hills Community Radio on Mixcloud

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Editing seminar snapshots: writing for a blog vs writing for a book

image_00006smlThis week I’m running a series of the best discussion points from my talk at the Writers & Artists selfpublishing event. So far I’ve covered how producing a good book requires an editorial team, how authors need to allow enough time to use their feedback properly and author control. Today, it’s a rather thoughtful question about writing and self-editing in the digital age.


Who are you? Self-editing to self-censorship

I had a very interesting discussion with a lady who had written a book on creativity, and was turning some of it into a blog. She said she found she was editing differently when putting it on line. Where passages from the book contained deeply personal information, she was removing this, feeling it was not suitable for the public world of a blog, though she was happy to have it in the book.

I wonder, has anyone else experienced this? Are you a different writer in the depths of your book? Less self-conscious perhaps? More secure in your relationship with the reader? Is your blog more of your upbeat, ‘party’ persona and your book a buried, contemplative one?

Last week in Thought Catalog. Porter Anderson talked in about the modern phenomenon of writers sharing so much about their daily lives, which has never been possible before. He asked, does this ready familiarity with an author’s life spoil the mystique necessary to let a book do its proper work on the virgin snow of a reader’s mind?
He talks of ‘a certain remove by the artist of his or her daily private life from the stage…’ so that the book can speak for itself.

But after my conversation with the blogging writer, I wonder this: what might we keep back for a book, let ourselves tell only in a story? Surely a person who is committed to writing always holds something in reserve, a true kernel that gets its expression only in communication with the page, that indeed maybe doesn’t exist except in the private vault where the book speaks for us. That’s what makes us writers. Perhaps on our blogs we are comparatively extrovert. We may not mean to censor or conceal; we tailor our copy for a short-order medium. In our books, we inhabit an introverse. Do you?

Thanks to Henry Hyde for the pic of me, and to Sean Mundy on Flickr for the eye.

Anyway, let’s discuss. Does this say something about the different qualities of blogs versus books? Does it suggest what we might be missing if more of our reading time is taken up by ephemeral media such as blogs and newspapers, rather than books? Especially as we increasingly read them all on the one device? And where are you most you? Am I mad?

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A good editor helps you to be yourself

3498727510_6433d49095_oWhat publishing does very well is editorial. I’m not a great writer, but with a lot of polish and structuring, we’ve made a good product. My editor has been fantastic.

I found this interesting note in a piece on Futurebook. Porter Anderson was quoting a speech made by author George Berkowski in advance of the Futurebook conference. It got me thinking about the shaping role of editing, and some crucial differences between indie publishing and traditional.

A quick disclaimer before we proceed. This was not the point of Berkowski’s speech or Porter Anderson’s article. It is merely a sentence that simmered for me after I read it. Also, Berkowski is not talking about fiction, as this blog usually is. His book is How To Build A Billion-Dollar App. But a fiction manuscript is scourged and rebuilt just as thoroughly as non-fiction when it enters a publisher’s editorial department.

This is what I want to explore; how a submission can be greatly changed by editorial input. Improved, usually, but undeniably changed.

My point is the nature of that change.


When a publisher edits, they are focused on their market. That makes perfect sense, of course. Like any business, they aim to please their clientele. If your artistic vision is perfectly aligned with that, that’s terrific (though you still may have drastic rewrites ahead).

But if you’re not? Many a first-time author has been uncomfortable about editors who are dumbing them down, or imposing directions that strip away their originality. Generalising is risky, of course, as one person’s depth is another’s dense mess. But what is good for the publisher may not be good for your creative identity, your long-term brand or your book.

Dare to be different
When you self-publish, you choose the editor who most closely suits your style and vision. There’s a lot more room for you to be daring and different, if that’s what you want. An indie editor will discuss what you want the book to be. Or they can help you find it. They won’t try to force you in a direction. They will help you come into your own.

I have, in reporting on a client’s novel, suggested they are more naturally literary than, say, the thriller market they thought they were writing for; that they were forcing when they should follow their instincts. It goes the other way too. I’ve advised writers who thought they should write literary that their strengths are the gripping page-turner of world-burning mayhem. I’ve steered would-be historical novelists to write non-fiction, as their every fibre screamed against inventing people, scenes and dialogue.

Because I don’t have to please an imprint, I can consider what’s best for the writer. I can truly be the book’s advocate.

Don’t imagine, though, that this is an issue with every indie author. Many know exactly what they aim to write. But if they’re feeling their way, an indie editor will help them be more truly themselves. When such an author is accepted by a publishing house, the process will shape the book to fit the house’s requirements. An indie editor will help you work out what your own requirements are.

Second novels … and beyond

And what about subsequent novels? If you write a second novel that hits different notes from the first, a traditional publisher usually tries to make you change it. You might not have realised how that first novel sealed your doom.

Such feedback might be helpful, of course. On the other hand, many authors resent it. They’re only just discovering their potential. The indie world is full of first novelists who were dropped because they developed, matured or wanted to flex their art a different way. Certainly if I’d had a traditional publisher for My Memories of a Future Life, I would never have been allowed Lifeform Three as novel 2. I would have been told to write another contemporary odd literary book.

If you’re an indie author, your editor can help you embrace new directions. Or you are free to find a different editor.

My bias

I freely admit this post exposes my priorities. I am not the person to ask if you want to know about marketing or writing a commercial success. But I’ll certainly tell you the fundamentals of gripping readers and giving them a good ride, whatever you write. I’ll also say that success, both commercial and the deeper reward of satisfaction, comes from good craft and a thorough understanding of where you fit. If your heart truly beats for genre fiction, the devoted reader of that genre will sense it. They’ll also know if you’re painting by numbers. Your best chance of success is to find your groove, be true to yourself, whatever it is.

But this is another reason why indie publishing, at its most careful and respectful, is more likely to produce genuinely original books. Traditional publishing will edit a book for the good of a defined clientele. Sometimes everyone is happy, of course. But in a traditional publisher the priority is the company interest, not the author or the book. I’ve seen enough occasions when this created a ghastly compromise.

Indeed, readers are far more adventurous than publishers can accommodate. The reader couldn’t define for you what they want; they know it when a skilled author invents it. (And thus I refute the oft-repeated claim that indie authors are expert only in marketing, not in the art. But that’s a different brawlgame.)

It’s often said that successful marriage is one that makes you feel more yourself. A successful editor partnership will make your book more itself, not more like someone else.

Let’s re-visit the quote that began all this: ‘publishing is very good at editorial’. It may be, within limits. But I contend that indie authors whose values are originality and craft are doing it better.

Thanks for the pic Nick Holland

I have news! Lifeform Three is now on audiobook! It caused us many new challenges and I’ll be blogging about them soon. In the meantime, find it here….

lf3 audio ad

And let’s discuss – what’s your experience of working with editors, whether independent or within a publishing house? Have you ever been made to fit a mould that you suspected wasn’t truly suitable for your book? 

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So You Want To Be A Writer? New radio show to get you started

tim fran and bookshop recording sept 034smlEvery week, my bookseller friend Peter Snell gets customers who ask him nervously: ‘how do I write’ and ‘how do I get published’? Sometimes they give him manuscripts or book proposals. I get emails with the same questions.

So we decided to team up for a series of shows for Surrey Hills Radio. If you’re a regular on this blog, you’re probably beyond starter-level advice, but if you’re feeling your way, or your friends or family have always hankered to do what you do, this might be just the ticket.

If you follow me on Facebook you’ll have seen the various pictures of us goofing with a fuzzy microphone, recording in the bookshop while customers slink past with bemused expressions. (Yes, that tiny gizmo is the complete mobile recording kit. It’s adorable.) So far the shows have been available only at the time of broadcast on Surrey Hills Radio (Saturday afternoons at 2pm BST), but the studio guys have now made podcasts so you can listen whenever you want. Shows in the back catalogue have covered

  • giving yourself permission to write
  • establishing a writing habit
  • thinking like a writer
  • getting published 101
  • how to self-publish.

This week’s show will be on planning a non-fiction book and the show after that will be outlining a novel – and will also include sneak peeks of the advice I’ve been cooking up for my third Nail Your Novel, on plot. So you want to be a writer? We have the inside knowledge. Do drop by.


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Which courses should I take to become a writer?

4063109507_ab9b84c033_zI’ve had this question from Ellie Jackson, who blogs at

I have just graduated from high school and dearly wish to become a writer/author. I am asking different authors what their recommended education would be – pursue a degree, take courses, or read books and blogs and get as much experience possible?

You want more than just to use writing in your job, right? You want to write books that will be your signature in the world.

A degree?

I’m guessing that careers advisers would pick the obvious – take a qualification in English, perhaps literature. That’s the way I was advised, but studying English didn’t help me write. It was the subject I was good at and a way of keeping me parked in education while I figured out a profession to aim for. (I went into publishing.) Casting around my real-life friends who’ve ended up as published writers, they have degrees in archaeology, history, theology, PPE. Husband Dave has a degree in physics. Some of my writer friends don’t even have degrees.

Writing courses

None of my writer cronies have a formal education in writing. They – we – wrote as a natural pastime and this became such a habit that we always had a book in the works. We read craft books when we found them, but mostly went with our instincts and learned by reading with awareness. Then we gathered our courage, queried an agent or an editor and had a period of rude awakening when we discovered our blind spots (and also strengths).

Not everyone gets that kind of feedback or opportunity, of course, especially as publishing deals are now more scarce than ever. But we now have far more ways to find mentors – hiring an editor, joining online or real-life writer groups. I had my baptism of fire in an evening class at Morley College in London, where we read excerpts of WIPs and discussed them critically, guided by an agent. All genres, all types of writer. Eyes were widely opened.

Good as that was, I’ve done miles more learning since. Each novel gives me new craft challenges, and Ever Rest is no exception. To be a writer you have to relish that work as much as the days when the muse is obliging. It also means you don’t have to get all your learning in one hit.

Last word on courses

Creative writing qualifications might prime you with the basics, but I don’t think they’ll equip you any better than learning by practice, training your sensitivity, reading observantly and experimenting on your own soul. Creative writing degrees probably exist because there’s a demand for them, not because they’re necessary.

What’s my evidence for this? In more than 20 years as an editor, I have not noticed that clients with MFAs or creative writing qualifications are any more adept than those without.

Again – which course?

Here’s what I’d do. Get a fallback skill you can ultimately use for freelance work. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to make a living just by writing, so train in a skill that will pay the bills and scale up or down as needed. Even if you aim to write a high-selling, lucrative genre such as romance, you still need to earn while you build a reputation, a network and a body of work.

It’s more likely, though, that you won’t give up the day job. Sorry. Many acclaimed writers I know are also immigration officials, teachers, night watchmen (good for story material), doctors, lawyers, PR consultants, tailors, journalists, farmers, electricians. I don’t subsist solely on writing. I freelance as a fiction editor and also as a magazine editor. And occasionally a film and TV extra.

whatremains44This doesn’t demote your writing to ‘just a hobby’. If you are arranging your life around your writing, it is not a hobby.

Should you try to work in book publishing?

Here’s an upside – you meet useful people and learn handy skills (for me it was how to make books – dead useful with the invention of CreateSpace).

Here’s a downside – little reading time of your own. You must read to develop your art. Although you learn a lot from rough or unsuitable manuscripts, or the latest upcoming bestsellers, you need to read for your own education and for your current WIP. See my previous remark about prioritising.


We’ve talked about ‘experience in writing’ – but experience in another sense counts too. The best education for writing isn’t craft books or courses. It’s life. If we only mix with writers, that’s all we know – like those authors whose main characters are always authors, or pop stars who only write songs about the agony of fame. That’s a rarefied life that doesn’t resonate well with the people who might be your readers. This fantastic post by Randy Susan Meyers at Beyond The Margins talks about the things she learned from frustrating jobs where people treat you impolitely, reveal their true natures or regard you as invisible. We write more truthful, relatable, enduring books when we get out.

Becoming a writer isn’t necessarily about getting qualifications. The learning process is too long for that. You can’t bank on making a living through it – although you might, the business is too precarious and fickle for such guarantees. So what is your best plan for success? To build a life that enables and enriches your writing. Good luck. And let me know what the other authors say.

Thanks for the writer pic Alan Weir

What would you say to Ellie? Share in the comments (especially if you’re a careers adviser)!

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When book sales are slow… how to keep motivated

hare tortoiseThis morning I was scratching my head for a post to write, so I asked on Facebook for ideas. Immediately, Vivienne Tuffnell volunteered this great question: ‘How do you keep motivated when your books aren’t flying off the shelves?’

Before I could even type a reply, Zelah Meyer had countered with: ‘delusional optimism and a long-term view’!


Which is about what I would say (at least, the second bit).

We’ll assume for the moment that you’ve done everything possible to ensure your books are up to scratch, with appropriate covers, well-honed descriptions and sharp metadata. You know the book’s good. You’re doing all you can, as your promotion budgets and tastes allow. But those sales aren’t stacking up.

How do you take courage?

Build volume

Keep calm and build a body of work. Actually, I see this as the only possible plan. Writing is a lifelong thing anyway. If you’ve had the gumption to start, and stick with it, it’s a default habit built over years. Having ideas is as usual as taking breaths. You finish a book and you don’t settle until you’ve got another under way.

Also, building a portfolio makes business sense. Whether we’re the Big Five/Four/Three/Two/AmazOne or an individual writer, this is what we’re doing. With more books we get more chances to be found by readers. And when we are found, we look like more of a presence.

Does this mean you have to churn them out? No. We are taking a long-term view. Write and publish fast if that suits your nature, your material, your market. If it doesn’t, you’re still building a body of work. However long the book takes, once it’s finished, it’s out for ever.

But everyone else…

What about all those posts on Facebook, G+ and Twitter where people share a stellar sales rank or triumphant sales numbers? Some days that can be like a big wet slap. Even though you know how sales ranks surge and plummet by the hour. What can you do, apart from congratulate them – and write?

First, remind yourself it doesn’t reflect on you or mean you should ‘do more’. (Except write. Did I mention that?)

And second, there is something you can do. Keep making meaningful connections, fishing in the internet sea for the other people who think like you, write like you, read like you. Writing is all about connection anyway.

Also, remind yourself how the ebook jungle has changed. I published Nail Your Novel when there was far less competition, and clocked up a good 10,000 sales with so little effort I couldn’t be bothered to count any further. I now can’t believe it used to be so easy. Now, with all the books clamouring for readers, we have to work so much harder for each sale.

Jessica BellCould you write non-fiction?

Author/editor/songwriter/poet Jessica Bell (left) wrote about this recently at Jane Davis’s blog. I hit on this strategy myself, completely by accident, when I wrote Nail Your Novel. In fact, if I hadn’t got those nonfic titles I’d be feeling pretty discouraged, simply because selling literary fiction is hard, hard, hard. My novels sell only a fifth as many as my Nail Your Novels. But that means I’m five times as thrilled by a fiction sale as I am by a Nail Your Novel sale (though I’m still quite thrilled by those, thank you very much).


What if you only have one book?

A significant number of writers have just one title, and feel no desire to write another. Creatively that’s fine. One book might be all you need to say. Ask Harper Lee. But you are likely to feel this sales problem very keenly. Especially if it’s fiction.

fordI do know writers who made a big splash with just one novel. For instance, John A A Logan with his literary thriller The Survival of Thomas Ford – but he published at that goldrush time, when a free promotion could work miracles. It was many years before he released another book, and the momentum he got with the first kept him going nicely. He also supplemented it with a lot of hard work on Kindle and Goodreads forums. Now, though, it’s rare that one book will get you noticed enough.

In this situation, your best bet is to go for volume (again). Team up with other likeminded one-book authors and form a collective. Perhaps release a box set.

If the book is non-fiction, you could use it to launch a speaking or tutoring career, which gives people more chances to encounter you. It’s the volume principle again – but you’re producing performances instead of books.

It’s not all about sales

Let’s remember we don’t write simply to chase sales. Except for a few stellar bestsellers, there are more lucrative lines of work. But the satisfaction factor? Every new comment from a reader, every email, every new review, tells me I’m writing what I should be writing. It’s worth the struggle.

Stop this relentless positivity, please

So this probably all sounds very well adjusted. Do ever stop being so darned positive? Certainly I do. I had a towering strop recently when I saw a report of a speech at a publishing conference where the delegates were discussing how much credibility to give indie authors. It all hinged on sales; nothing else. No thought for originality, craft, quality. It reminded me that the publishing world does not want to give authors credibility if they publish themselves – and if we do, they assume we must be at some junior, paint-by-numbers level. Which is insulting for just about everybody – genre authors included. After that I was not positive at all. Measured in that way, EL James would have far more credibility than Henry James.

But we’re playing a long game. For some of us it is longer than others, but the answer is the same. Write more books, and write them well. And remember the main contest you’re in is not against other writers. It’s against your own standards and hopes; the struggle to do justice to your ideas and your talent.

This post probably isn’t startling information. But if you’re also having a crisis of confidence, I hope it helps. And I really hope my optimism isn’t delusional. This is Zelah, by the way. She really can do this. I’ve seen her.

 Thanks for the hare and tortoise pic CarbonNYC

Any thoughts to add? Share in the comments!

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