How to write a book

Publish or selfpublish? Advice for the 2014 writer

7345133320_0dd41c6fc1_cThis post is a tad late as I’ve had an oversubscribed weekend, first hosting a workshop at the London Author Fair and then teaching at the Guardian selfpublishing masterclass. In all that whirl I’ve met a lot of writers and would-be selfpublishers and thought I’d share some of the advice I gave most frequently.

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 money (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.

As I’ve said in this blog post, all of that is services that indie authors do for themselves. Some (not all) are easy to source and manage. Some can’t even be priced, like the publisher’s reputation. But 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.

Some of that value might be emotional – the confidence that everything has been done properly and a sense of validation. These may not be as guaranteed as you think. There are always traditionally published writers who sell enough to be looked after well by publishers, and others who decide they are better as indies.

But the more you know about selfpublishing, the more you can assess a publisher’s value as a partner.

guar teaching w joanna
Teaching at the Guardian selfpublishing masterclass: pic courtesy of Joanna Penn

2 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 reissue their backlist or publish in co-operatives with other authors. 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 – a different beast again.

There are also rights that are much better exploited with help – particularly translations. A few months ago I was emailed by a literary scout because a Spanish publisher was curious about My Memories of a Future Life. If anything more transpires I’ll blog about it (you bet I will), but these are opportunities I’d welcome a publisher for. (Any other offers, I’m all ears!)

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

LAF workshop
Workshop at the London Author Fair: that’s Dave looking thoughtful on my left!

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.

Most first-time writers map out a schedule for publishing their book, but don’t appreciate how long it will take them to work through issues found by the developmental editor. With first books I often recommend extensive changes and rethinks, or find the writer needs to grasp a technique better – but they’ve already made a plan to get the book onto Kindle in just a month.

What makes it worse is when they see their writer crowd posting on Facebook or Twitter about rattling through their drafts, launch dates etc. I have three things to say about that:

1 These writers might be well practised and on their umpteenth book

2 They might be fibbing (surely not)

3 They might be about to release a book before it’s fit to be published.

I said this yesterday to my Guardian masterclass: when you’re making a schedule for publication, think of your first book as your training wheels. Until you’ve had the editor’s report you don’t know how much work your manuscript needs. For subsequent books, you’ll work smarter, you’ll have a sharper technique and you’ll be able to gauge how long everything will take. But don’t make a timetable for your first book and then discover you haven’t left enough weeks – or months – for a thorough edit.

And this: don’t be swayed by someone else’s schedule. Find the schedule that fits you.

Thanks for the pics, Official US Navy Imagery, Joanna Penn and London Author Fair

What advice would you give to the 2014 writer? Let’s share in the comments

Plots · Rewriting · Writer basics 101 · Writer basics 101

It took me years to write my first book. Does it get easier?

Yes. And here’s what you can do to help it along.

Joanna Penn was writing this week about how she’s smartened her writing routine as a result of what she learned while writing her first novel, Pentecost. I thought I’d share the ways in which I’ve found my own writing sped up from those early, stumbling days.

It’s as if we write our first novel with a blindfold on. We have an idea for a story and off we go, grabbing things, finding they’re not what we thought, discarding them, discovering holes. At some point we pay more attention to learning to write. By the time we roll out a manuscript that will please our most critical readers we’ve come a long way.

Obviously by novel two that learning curve is behind us. We know what a story needs, structurally and emotionally. We appreciate the needs of our genre. We’ve worked with editors or feedback groups and we understand how outsiders see our work.

Establish a method

As I’m sure you’ll appreciate from reading this blog, writers who produce reliably establish a method for getting the work done. I put mine in Nail Your Novel and it seems to work rather well for a lot of people

All that is part of the craft. But there’s the other half of the writing process as well – the creative one. That’s harder to control because with ideas we tend to get what our inspiration gives us. To an extent, we still have the blindfolds on.

Make your muse work smarter

When you’re arming yourself to tackle another novel, it helps to look at the way you handle creative problems. You will probably find you hit a number of blocks the first time round, and you can take more control of them now. With a bit of analysis, you can reduce periods where you’re scratching your head because you don’t know what’s wrong or you have no ideas at all. In other words, you can fend off the dreaded block.

Ask yourself these questions

Where in the story did you waste time on things that didn’t work? Were they a particular kind of scene?

How long did it take you to find out what engaged you about your story? Are there questions you could ask yourself to drill down to that more quickly so that you know where your story is going?

How could you have prepared better for writing each scene in close up?

What darlings did you keep on life support that you ended up killing anyway?

Where did you go around loops of a maze instead of taking a straight line?

Where were you lazy – and unmasked by your editors or crit partners?

Where did you contrive situations to get something in that wasn’t going to fit?

Where did you get in a tangle with continuity and could you have made things easier for yourself?

What did your beta readers or editors identify as your weaknesses? What can you do to pre-empt those problems this time around?

What kind of research did you need to do and what was a waste of time?

Thank you, Mockstar on Flickr, for the picture. Have you ever diagnosed where your muse could have worked smarter? If you do it now, what would it tell you? Share in the comments!


Rewriting · The writing business · Writer basics 101

How do you know when your book is finished?


You could edit a book for ever – so how do you know when to stop?

First of all, apologies for this post being so late. We’ve had massive internet blackout chez Morris and no joy from the online help people. This post is being brought to you from a thin-walled internet cafe under a gurgly bathroom in which a gentleman appears to be having a very productive cough. But, like him, I feel so good to get it out at last.

Anyway, on with the post. I’ve had a great question from Tara Benwell: How do you know when to stop editing your novel, especially when you hear different advice from different editors and readers?

Novel-writing must be the ultimate artform for editors and perfectionists. Unlike painting, where too much tinkering might turn a strong piece to mush, most books – fiction or non-fiction – only get better with repeated attention.

Indeed, getting a novel right is such a complex job you could edit for ever and some writers would if the writing universe would let them. So how do we tell when it’s safe to stop tweaking?

Is it your first?

If it’s your first novel, it’s particularly hard to know when to stop. Your first novel is the book that teaches you to write. Baby steps turn to giant leaps and by the time you have a polished draft you’re eager to see if it’s a contender. But many first-time writers query before the manuscript is really ready.

If you have edited until you can’t think of anything more to do, and you feel the story is sharp and sparkling, don’t send it to an agent or publisher. Give it to a trusted reader. It doesn’t have to be an industry professional, but it does have to be someone whose literary judgement you trust and who will give you an honest opinion. Then digest their commentary, be surprised at their insights and your blind spots, dust yourself off and edit again.


Time to stop being solitary

Writing is primarily a solitary activity – at least while we’re doing it. But all the writers I know reach a point where they need feedback from their trusted readers. Finishing is something we all have trouble with and no writer I know can do it without help.

Different advice?

Tara’s obviously gone through these stages and has discovered a new joy in critical feedback – conflicting suggestions. Make it a thriller, no, make it a romantic suspense. Make chapter seven the prologue; no, get rid of all that material in chapter 7. Put the parrot centre stage; no, get rid of the infernal parrot. There’s clearly something wrong in the manuscript, but which advice do you follow?

To make sense of conflicting advice, you have to delve a little deeper into your critics’ expectations. What kind of book did they think they were reading? Is it what they usually like to read? Were they comparing it to one that is already on the market? If you know that, you can see why they made their suggestions – and can decide if that is the way you want your book to go.

Conflicting advice from agents and publishers

Sometimes this kind of feedback comes from agents or publishers. As above, this might indicate there is a flaw that needs fixing – in which case, work out which advice fits best with the kind of book you want to write. But wildly conflicting advice might also be an indication that the publisher wants to slot it into a spot in the market that it doesn’t yet fit. Your book may be perfectly good as it is, but these days a quality book doesn’t automatically earn a deal.

So should you make those changes? It’s worth considering if there is a guarantee that they will publish – but there isn’t always and you could do all that work for nothing. Should you carry on looking for a home where your book fits better? After all, fashions change. Every case is different and it’s a tough call.

Great novels aren’t finished, they’re pushed out of the nest

I’m going to let you in on a secret. None of us published writers ever think we’ve finished our novels. Allow any of us to pick up our work again six months after finishing and we’ll find things to change, think of better ways to skin the cat or save it. We’ll read favourite passages and suck our teeth. Editing is kind of anxiety habit for not doing it all perfectly the first time. We all have a feeling that we could do this novel just a teensy bit better with one more pass.

But at some stage the sand runs out of the hourglass, the imperfections we notice get smaller and smaller, our inner circle of readers are happy and we push it nervously out of the nest.

Finished is a relative term

And then there are degrees of finished. When the manuscript reaches an agent or publishing house, it comes back with queries and notes. Just like your beta readers, your agent or editor will raise questions you’d never dreamed could be asked about your plot, make inferences about your characters that you hadn’t a clue were possible – and you’ll feel like you’re back to square one.

In reality, a book is finished when everybody is reasonably happy.

If you don’t have a deadline, how do you know when to stop?

There are people who refine the same book for ever, but maybe they’re not doing any good. Perhaps they’re polishing so far it’s down to the bare metal. Or they’re constantly reinventing their style by redoing the same story when they should start a new one.

As writers we’re learning and changing all the time. If I’d started my current WIP five years ago I wouldn’t do it the way I’m doing it now. We write our books according to the writer we are at the moment. Some tricks and devices I thought were smart five years ago I wouldn’t use now. To me they’re obvious, although readers may not mind them at all. They only matter to me as I develop my art. I’m not interested in the same themes, problems and types of character as I was half a decade ago. So I do the book as well as I can at the moment, make sure it works on its own terms and for the people who will read it, and move onto a new phase of my writing life.

Is the book finished?

In the end, all we can do is build our trust in the book and let it go.

Thank you, Pinkmoose on Flickr, for the photo.

How do you know when your book is finished? Share in the comments – I may not get to them immediately, but I love a good discussion and I’ll reply as quickly as possible