Monday, 31 May 2010

Perfectionism is the Enemy

When I had just started secondary school one of the English teachers - the cool one under thirty who wore mini-skirts and who we all wanted to impress - set this essay title: If a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing badly. I didn't understand what it meant, so when I got home I asked my mother. She snorted. Ridiculous! They've got it wrong - if a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing well. This was what I expected her to say, having been told off enough times for my poor standards regarding the washing up and tidying my bedroom. Confused, I chose a different essay title.

But the original title bothered me. What could it mean? I didn't work it out until much, much later when I started to see people not even try, in case they failed. I'd encourage them to send their work to creative writing competitions or out to agents, only to have them demur and say things like: it's not ready yet. I spoke to a student recently who was frozen. Complete writer's block. She couldn't write in case what she wrote wasn't perfect.

But the first wonderful thing about creative writing is that there is no such thing as a perfect piece of writing. You can't fail, because there is no absolute standard of perfection. Everybody's had the experience of being recommended to read a book, only to discover it leaves them cold. For example, I love the opening to Captain Corelli's Mandolin, but I know it puts other people off. And The Da Vinci Code wasn't a page turner for me, more a yawn maker.

So write. Write what you like. Write lots. Try this, try that. Throw away what you don't like, keep what you do. If you've got something you want to say, say it, and stuff the way it's written. Give yourself permission to write badly. And if you're aspiring to get published (and not everyone is) then send it out when you've got to the point of tinkering round the edges. Don't wait until it's perfect, because it never will be. Write, write, then write some more. If writing's worth doing, it's worth doing badly. Apart from anything else, the second wonderful thing about creative writing is you can always go back and edit.

My next event will be speaking at Corsham Library, Wiltshire with fellow New Romantics Lucy Diamond and Veronica Henry 3rd June at 7.30pm. Come and join us!

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Chapter Ends

I'll let you into a secret: I'm a bit obsessed by chapter ends. It's one of those little corners that seem to be left out of books on writing, but it's an important area for a writer to master. Think about it. Most people read late at night. They want to read a chapter before turning the light out. Your job is to get them to read another chapter, and another. And another, all the way until The End.

Watch soaps for masterclasses in how to get people tuning in the next day. There's always a sudden revelation, a question that must be answered or a dramatic situation to be resolved. When writing we might choose to be more subtle about it, but essentially the trick is the same. Make the reader read 'just a little bit' of the next chapter, and you've got them hooked.

Some writers do this naturally. JK Rowling is a good example, as I discovered when I read the first Harry Potter books aloud to my children. The chapters are long and it's hard to find a natural point at which to stop. Unless you want to read for an hour you end up breaking in the middle of paragraphs. Small wonder she gets kids reading; the books are compulsive page turners because there are no places to stop.

The worst thing is to end the chapter with them all going to bed and zzzzz-ing away - you might as well write 'put this book down now'. The exception is when you're writing a picture book, when parents are reading hoping their children will drop off at the end of it. So, if you want to write a page turner, pay attention to your chapter ends. Keep them reading.

My next event will be speaking at Corsham Library, Wiltshire with fellow New Romantics Lucy Diamond and Veronica Henry 3rd June at 7.30pm. Come and join us!

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Massacre of the Innocents

I knew my first novel was a work of genius. It was obvious. So it was a bit disconcerting when my MA tutor suggested that, while writing it had been a good learning curve, it was time to put that book to one side and start another. Even more disconcerting was the experience of sending it out to agents. My sample chapters returned so fast the envelopes had scorch marks down the side. How could this be? Could the world really be that blind to my glorious, shining novel? Distinctly miffed, I tried a book doctor. But when the report came it was clearly the work of an imbecile, and not worth considering.

I sulked. I sulked for six months. And through my grand sulking the notion gradually percolated - perhaps the novel wasn't so great after all. I looked again at the book doctor's report. They'd seen a problem and suggested a solution that seemed complete madness. It was still a daft solution, in my opinion, but perhaps the problem they'd spotted had some validity.

I sulked a bit more. And then I came up with my own solution: what had been written from four viewpoints should be changed to a single viewpoint because, in truth, I was only interested in one of the stories I had interwoven. But that meant cutting about 50% of what I'd already written. I did some more sulking, and then went and sharpened my axe.

I lost 90% in the end, but once I'd made the decision to go for wholesale slaughter the process wasn't that bad. In fact, it was almost enjoyable. The result? Well, when I sent the novel out again it took 36 hours from slipping the ms into the letterbox to have my first offer from an agent. Others followed, and that book ended up being published around the world. Which only goes to show: sometimes mass murder is the right thing to do.

My next event will be speaking at Corsham Library, Wiltshire with fellow New Romantics Lucy Diamond and Veronica Henry 3rd June at 7.30pm. Come and join us!

Friday, 28 May 2010

Cherry Cake Pacing

On the few occasions I’ve made a cherry cake I’ve carefully followed all the instructions, stirred in my glace cherries (full of E numbers, but stickily delicious), carefully spooned the mixture into the cake tin, then popped it in the oven. Half an hour or so later the cake is ready. Then the first slice…and all the cherries have ended up in one glutinous lump at the bottom. It’s a bit like pacing a novel. The best scenes – the cherries – need to be distributed evenly throughout. The easiest way to check your novel for pacing is to use index cards, one scene per card.

Start with a big table or a clear floor. Draw a few imaginary lines, one for normal, one for exciting, one for incredibly dramatic. Now lay the cards out scene by scene, according to where you think they are on the scale (depending on your novel, the scale may be normal: scary: scariest, or normal: emotional: tempestuous, etc). When you done the lot, step back. Ideally the novel should follow the line of a series of hills and valleys, with the hills getting higher as the novel reaches The End. Of course, not every novel follows this plan – The Lovely Bones is one best-selling exception – but it’s a good one to aim for.

It’s about pace: readers need the contrast in fast and slow, between the heights and the depths, with the ordinary stuff connecting the best scenes like cake mix. If your cherries are clumped into a sticky mess, then spread them out. In cake making the answer is to dredge the cherries with flour before dropping them into the mix. For novels, the answer is some dismantling and rearranging. I love this bit. The hard slog of the first draft is over, and now it’s like cooking: necessity, pleasure and craft are all mixed up together and the result is…mmmmm.

My next event will be speaking at Corsham Library, Wiltshire with fellow New Romantics Lucy Diamond and Veronica Henry 3rd June at 7.30pm. Come and join us!

Thursday, 27 May 2010

The Lift Test

Imagine you're going up to the 8th floor when the lift shudders, then stops. You wait but nothing happens. It looks like you're going to be there for some time. You turn to the sole other occupant of the lift and - well, who would you like to be stuck with? Do you want to be stuck with the person who drones on about how hopeless the situation is, or the one who thinks of an escape plan? Would you prefer the person who tells you at length about their very dull, static life, or the one who has plenty of interesting stories? And at a more basic level, would you like the one who is distinctly lacking in attractive qualities, compared to the one who is full of life and energy?

Reading a novel is a bit like being stuck in a lift with a set of characters, if you think about the length of time it takes to read one. It usually takes me about eight hours to read a novel, and that may be spread out over several days or even weeks. So I need the characters to be engaging or I'll put the book down.

When I'm writing, at the back of my mind I'm imagining what it would be like to be stuck in the lift for eight hours with my main character. Life may not be going well for them, but they don't, won't, can't whine about it. Instead, they're busy trying to work out an escape plan. Perhaps because we worry whether readers will like our main character there's a tendency to make them bland, and I suppose it's better to be bland than out and out offensive. But only just better. Instead, apply the lift test. The characters to write about - good, bad or plain ugly - are always going to be the ones who make those eight hours seem like eight minutes.

My next event will be speaking at Corsham Library, Wiltshire with fellow New Romantics Lucy Diamond and Veronica Henry 3rd June at 7.30pm. Come and join us!

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Torture for Writers Part III

The last two blogs were about assembling the raw materials, this one will be about putting it all together. Synopses are always written in third person, present tense. Start with an opening paragraph that says what the novel is about and the story line. It should be clear from this what genre it falls into. Also make it clear if the structure is non-linear, for example, there are two or more parallel plots, or multiple voices. Let the reader have a good idea of what is coming.

Now write out the plot, concentrating on the most important story points and summarising the rest - 'After an unpleasant encounter at school, Jennifer decides...' The unpleasant encounter may have been worth a chapter to itself, but the important bit is the decision. Be bold, be brave, be ruthless. You can't get everything in (because then it would be the novel). It might inspire you to go to the cinema, as films often come with sharply written synopses covering the main plot points, the characters and the themes into one or two short paragraphs.

7 things to look out for...

1. Tone. The tone of the synopsis reflects the novel, so if the novel is humorous, so should the synopsis be.
2. Verbs. Use the most active verbs you can. Characters shouldn't go anywhere, they should rush, run, sidle.
3. Time. Because you're concentrating on the best bits, it's easy to make vast leaps in time that give the synopsis a stop-start impression, or completely lose...
4. Logic. Which can all too easily go out of the window as you cut, cut, cut. My first synopsis included the line 'Suddenly she realises she's having an affair.' What - she was just walking down the street when, whoops, it happened?
5. Genre shift. It starts out techno thriller, ends up as romance. Or vice versa.
6. The End. If the butler did it, say so.
7. Confusion. You need a willing volunteer for this. Get them to read it, and if they're confused at any point, you need to rewrite.

And there it is. Easy peasy.

My next event will be speaking at Corsham Library, Wiltshire with fellow New Romantics Lucy Diamond and Veronica Henry 3rd June at 7.30pm. Come and join us!

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Torture for Writers Part II

The thing of delight and enchantment that is your synopsis should be written after you have finished and polished your novel to the point where it will glitter in the slush pile like the Koh-i-Nor in gravel. There are three reasons for this:

First, you're hoping an agent will demand to see the rest on the strength of your initial submission so why start your relationship by disappointing them? (Especially when there's plenty of time to do that later on.)

Secondly, your novel is bound to change and evolve in the process of writing it, but should by some incredible chance you be taken on on the strength of the sample chapters and synopsis you're stuck with that story. It'll be like writing the rest in a straitjacket.

Thirdly, you (and they) need to know you have the stamina and discipline to write a whole novel. Unless you're a celebrity, of course, in which case the publishing pixies will be called out to assist your stumbling process. But that's another story.

So, you've written the novel. You are now going to write out the plot of your novel. This stage has three rules:

1 - It must be done from memory with NO consulting the mighty tome.
2 - Each sentence you write must start on a new line.
3 - Each sentence must start with the words 'And then...'

Following the three rules forces you to stick to the plot. You can't divert yourself into all the intricacies of the background or the setting because the sentences have to start with 'And then...' And because it's done by memory, and it's impossible for even the author to hold every twist and turn in their heads, you will concentrate on the more important plot points. And then...

And then, when you've done all that hard work, pick up a highlighter and mark out those key scenes which are the most important to the story. Mr Darcy's proposal to Elizabeth Bennett would be one, the Netherfield ball wouldn't. Frodo accepting the ring quest is, Shelob isn't, nor is Galadriel. It's tough playing Sophie's Choice with scenes but it has to be done.

And then, when you've done all that, your plot should be clearly defined. This, along with the work on theme and character, will be the basis for writing your synopsis into a wonderful piece of selling prose...tomorrow.

My next event will be speaking at Corsham Library, Wiltshire with fellow New Romantics Lucy Diamond and Veronica Henry 3rd June at 7.30pm. Come and join us!

Monday, 24 May 2010

Torture for Writers Part I

If the covering letter seems hellish, it's nothing compared to the particular torture that is the synopsis. I have heard agents say brightly, 'Oh, I never read them, it might spoil the story.' To which one can only answer 'Why ask for them then?' before running them through with an unsharpened toasting fork. Because ask for them they do. So, as a writer desperately seeking representation, you will have to resign yourself to condensing all those months and years of hard work into a page or two of pithy prose.

First things first. Remove the toasting fork with a twist, then shove it straight back in, because there's no consensus among agents as to exactly what they want from a synopsis. One page or two, or ten? Single or double spaced? To include character breakdowns (to possibly accompany your own) or not? Look up the details for each agent you're sending sample chapters to check if they have any particular demands. If nothing stated, shorter is better than longer. One side of A4 is usually enough, maximum two pages, spaced as you wish but in a clear font such as Times New Roman in 12pt. Whatever length and spacing you go for, fill each page - the ones I've seen that go over to two sides, but only by one paragraph look as if you either ran out of steam or lost confidence in your writing.

Stick to the main characters - having workshopped lots of synopses I know that people get confused if there are many more than four names, I'd say a maximum of six before most readers lose the plot (literally). If pushed, use generic names for minor characters - waitress, chauffeur, teacher, children. Try a few telling character details: a leather arm chair of a man, a cool blonde with an eye to the main chance, rock n roll anarchist.

Pin point the genre. If in doubt, where will it be shelved in Waterstones? If still not sure or going for 'fiction', then who do you write like? Then go and look where they're shelved in Waterstones. That's your genre. One thing I can guarantee is that you haven't come up with a whole new genre. Crossover is a cop out. Now think about the theme - coming of age, redemption, the worm turns. Write a sentence on the theme. Now the plot - bored housewife takes series of lovers to escape humdrum life in provincial France. You might need a couple of sentences for this.

Tired? And we're still on the opening paragraph. We'll look at the rest tomorrow.

My next event will be speaking at Corsham Library, Wiltshire with fellow New Romantics Lucy Diamond and Veronica Henry 3rd June at 7.30pm. Come and join us!

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Editing in Action

My most recent novel came back from the editor with the request that I 'looked again' at the opening scene. It's a big party scene, with two plot-important conversations (A and B) interspersed with an inconsequential - but I hoped, funny - interchange (X). So the scene went, intro, X A X B. The editor wanted for the X scenes to be joined, or cut, or moved, or in some way changed as she felt the flow wasn't right.

I started a long email explaining why I'd chosen that configuration. There needed to be a run up to conversation A, and you couldn't have A and B right next to each other, so X A X B was the absolutely perfect order. As I wrote my justification, I thought as a concession I'd try XAB, but that obviously didn't work. I tried A B - no, it definitely needed the X in-between. AXB was on the surface the straightforward choice, but that would mean rewriting the intro, rewriting the X interchange, writing a completely new run up to the A conversation. As I wrote explaining why my first choice had been the right one, I could feel this new scene in action, how it would flow.

I looked at my long, long email full of self-justification and realised: I didn't want to change the order simply because it meant more work. After a short bout of internal wrestling I deleted the email and wrote another, shorter one. You're quite right, I wrote to my editor. I'll do it.

And I did. And it was better.

My next event will be speaking at Corsham Library, Wiltshire with fellow New Romantics Lucy Diamond and Veronica Henry 3rd June at 7.30pm. Come and join us!

Saturday, 22 May 2010

The Mathematics of Novel Writing

People often tell me that they'd like to write a novel but they don't have the time. Actually you don't need much time to write a novel, you just need a little basic maths. Ten to twenty minutes a day is about how long it takes most people to write 250 words*. Multiply 250 words by 365 days and you get 91,250 words. That's a reasonable length for a first draft. Now, all you need is ten or so minutes a day...

1. Do your novel thinking outside your writing time so when you get the chance you know roughly what you're going to write.

2. If you say something like, "I just want to do some writing, could you keep an eye on the children", you're in effect asking for permission. Sneak off without telling anyone and I bet it'll be ten minutes at least before anyone notices you've gone.

3. Leave your writing with a few notes about where you're going next. When you next get the chance they'll refresh your memory quickly so you use the time effectively.

4. If you get stuck on one section jump to the next bit you fancy writing; you can always go back later and fill in the gaps.

5. Give up watching television. Or Sudoku, the crossword, emails, Twitter - there are thousands of things that gulp down novel writing time. And if all else fails...

6. Cultivate a reputation for IBS. Why not? Who will ever question, other than sympathetically (or possibly cautiously), the time you're spending in the loo?

If you really, really want to write a novel you'll find those ten minutes. It's just about the maths. A x B = C. That's all you need to know.

* As a guideline, this post is 300 words.

My next event will be speaking at Corsham Library, Wiltshire with fellow New Romantics Lucy Diamond and Veronica Henry 3rd June at 7.30pm. Come and join us!

Friday, 21 May 2010

Agent Letters - The Five Paragraphs Expanded

A few people asked me to expand on my format for a covering letter to an agent, so here it is, all to be fitted on one page.

1. Why you're writing to them. You've heard them speak or read an article they've written. Maybe they represent an author who you admire and hope to emulate. It should be specific which shows that you've bothered to do some research which in turn shows a professional outlook.

2. Brief summary of your book. Length, genre etc. Then a few sentences about the theme of the book. This equates to the scriptwriter's elevator pitch, where you imagine you're in a lift with someone who could buy your script, but you've only got a minute to sell it to them. Be clear about what it is you're selling.

3. Market position of the book. Essentially, who's going to buy it. This could be phrased as 'It will appeal to readers of...' and then name a couple of authors, rather then a demographic. Depending on the book, you might want to combine paras 2 and 3.

4. About yourself. Include anything that endorses you as a writer, such as articles published or short story competitions won. Also include any personal information that is directly relevant to the book, such as the book is about shenanigans in a school, and you're a teacher. Don't include anything else such as your friends think it's a wonderful book, or how very difficult it was to write.

5. Thank you for your time etc. I call this the 'I am not a loony' paragraph, so no demands that they get back to you within 48 hours, or copyright threats. Instead, pitch yourself as the ideal author, hardworking, full of ideas and enthusiasm, but also very open to feedback and direction. And don't forget the SAE.

The whole should be written in simple, straightforward language - you are after all hoping to have a long term business relationship with this person. Ask some friends to read it because, in your anxiety to get it right, it's very easy to come across negatively, and while they're reading get them to check the spelling and the grammar. And by the time you've done all that, you're probably feeling like giving up on the whole business and taking up watercolours instead. But persevere. Get it right just once, and you'll never have to go through this again.

My next event will be speaking at Corsham Library, Wiltshire with fellow New Romantics Lucy Diamond and Veronica Henry 3rd June at 7.30pm. Come and join us!

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Alien Abduction and Agent Letters

You may have noticed I've got a book out. God, I hope you have. If you haven't, it's called Kissing Mr Wrong and the launch party is TONIGHT at 6.30pm at Waterstones, Bath and please, please, someone turn up. Anyway, I'm a little teeny weeny bit stressed so thought I'd take one thing off my shoulders - I'm going to repeat some of my favourite blogs from last year starting with writing to agents...

Oh dear, it's happened again. For the third time in as many months, someone I previously believed to be a charming and intelligent person has shown me their agent letter and revealed their real self to be an arrogant and demanding, possibly litigious, definitely humourless, buttock-clenchingly, squirm-inducingly, utterly bonkers individual.

I don't know what happens. Agents are, in my experience, hard working people in love with books - they have to be, or they couldn't do the job. They're normal (although I'm sure I once spotted a dorsal fin), so why does it seem so hard to write a normal, straightforward letter introducing yourself and your book in normal, straightforward language? It must be the weight of the thing, summing up possibly years of hard work and hope in a couple of paragraphs. Well, five...

1. Why you're writing to them.
2. Brief summary of your book.
3. Market position of the book.
4. About yourself.
5. Thank you for your time etc (I call this the 'I am not a loony' paragraph).

Pop it all onto one page, and there you are! It's not difficult. Except it is. My first agent letter is the one thing I've never shown to anyone else, so ghastly and needy it is, I might as well have disembowelled myself and sent the contents by Parcel Post. My only excuse is alien abduction. The proof is out there.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Short Stories for the Womag markets

One lunch time about a month ago my publicist rang me up: Woman's Own were urgently looking for a short story - could I provide one that day? I gaily said yes, despite not having one to hand. Say yes now, panic later, that's my motto. Luckily last year I'd been on a great course run by Joanna Barnden on how to write short stories for the women's magazine market aka womags.

Jo has had great success with this market herself and has worked out - well, I don't want to say formula as that sounds disparaging but essentially that's what it is, for writing womag short stories. It's quite straightforward and could apply to almost any form of writing: define the character's main problem and concentrate on how they solve it. With a novel the characters will have many problems to solve, some of which may never get resolved, but there is usually one central problem that has to be dealt with.

There's more to the day with Jo than just that as she takes you through all the elements that make up a successful short story. I'd half written one on the day, which she'd given me some feedback on which of course, I hadn't done anything about until my publicist called....but four hours later, armed with Jo's advice, I finished and sent off the story. You can see it in the current Woman's Own Summer Special - The Last Fairy on the Right. (It was supposed to be called The Last Pixie on the Right, but no pixie pix, they'd only got fairies hence the title change.)

So, many thanks to Jo. She's doing an Advanced Short Story course in Cornwall in August which I'm going to go on, but does others all round the country. I love going on writing courses but I wouldn't recommend many of the ones I've been on. I would this one; Jo's a good teacher, the course is well-organised and hey, I wrote a story and got it published!

Come to the launch party for Kissing Mr Wrong, 6.30pm on 20th May at Waterstones, Milsom Street, Bath. All welcome, but please ring 01225 448515 to let them have an idea of numbers.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

The Most Important Problem a Writer Faces Is...

...What to wear to their launch party.

I trolled round the shops at the weekend trying on launch party clothes. Should I go dressy as if for a garden party? What about trendy? I could try to look cool, although edgy is beyond me - I know my limits. I could dress down - hey, launch parties, two a penny - or up - Omigod I've written a book, woo-hoo!

Then there's the cost. Writers don't earn much at the best of times, whatever you may hear about JK Rowling and multi-million pound advances, and times are hard in publishingland. Do I want to spend money on a new outfit which I may never wear again, when I should really put it towards buying a new cistern for the downstairs loo? Yes, yes, my heart screeches, the loo can wait. Besides, the launch party is going to coincide with my birthday, and surely I can have a new birthday suit, as it were. But my head is determined to be sensible.

I compromise. I will buy something new only if it's really special, then waste hours of writing time going to shops I never usually go to in the hope of finding something special. Nothing - although I learn that I can just squeeze into a size 14 at Top Shop whereas I'm a petite size 8 at Country Casuals.

So, at time of writing, I have nothing to wear. Well, that will be good for publicity if nothing else...

Come to the launch party for Kissing Mr Wrong, 6.30pm on 20th May at Waterstones, Milsom Street, Bath. All welcome, but please ring 01225 448515 to let them have an idea of numbers.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Things that go wrong at Launch Parties - My Mother

My mother didn't come to my first launch party - too busy doing something vitally important like organising the laundry.

She came to the second one, for Nice Girls Do. I know she did because I saw her for a moment, waved, but when I went to speak to her, she seemed to have vanished. No one knew where she'd gone to. Afterwards she explained that she'd got confused over the time, misread her watch and thought she was about miss the last bus home so had scuttled home. Coincidentally, just in time to catch Cranford on the telly.

For the third one I was insistent. She was to come to the launch party, and stay. We would collect her, and then drive her home. She agreed, though it has to be said, rather reluctantly.
"You must be terribly proud," one of my friends tried as an opening gambit. There was a long long pause.
"I suppose I am," came the answer.
She then proceeded to demonstrate her pride in her daughter's achievements during my speech. I could see her throughout, helping herself to books off the shelf and flicking through them. (She later explained herself by saying she heard me speak every day, whereas she wasn't in a bookshop every day.)

I'd given up by the time A Single to Rome came round, but to my surprise she pitched up AND BOUGHT A BOOK. Not one of mine, admittedly, but she was showing willing.

And so to another launch party. Will she come? Will she stay? Will she perhaps buy a book? Will it be one of mine? All will be revealed on the 20th.

Come to the launch party for Kissing Mr Wrong, 6.30pm on 20th May at Waterstones, Milsom Street, Bath. All welcome, but please ring 01225 448515 to let them have an idea of numbers.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Things that go wrong at Launch Parties - Nicolas Cage

When we were talking about dates for the launch party of A Single to Rome we realised that the best date for me, the book and Waterstones was the same day that the Christmas Market was going to open in Bath, and Nicolas Cage was coming to turn on the Christmas lights. In our innocence, we thought that while people might have problems parking, it would attract more people.

I happened to be teaching a class that finished just before six and started to stroll up towards Milsom Street and Waterstones. A lot of people were milling about but hey, it was the first day of the Christmas Market and it's always popular. I wasn't concerned until I came to the first barrier. The man in the fluorescent tabard was adamant. I couldn't go through. I explained where I was trying to get to and he pointed out that the platform where Nicolas Cage was going to perform the ceremony was stationed on Milsom Street, right in front of Waterstones. "You'll never make it,' he cheerfully informed me, obviously infused with the spirit of Christmas.

So I tried elsewhere. I tried the back lanes. No hope. I went up Broad Street, trying to cut through the upmarket shopping centre. No chance there. I circled round the centre of Bath, but there was no room at the inn. Hard faced policemen Perhaps if I'd had a donkey in tow someone would have taken pity on me. I spent the start of my launch party sitting on some hard stone steps surrounded by people wearing glow-in-the-dark reindeer antlers.

And the thing that really, really rankles? One of my friends told a policeman at the barricades she had a launch party to go to urgently, and she was escorted through the crowds, like Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard. Huh! It should have been ME!

Come to the launch party for Kissing Mr Wrong, 6.30pm on 20th May at Waterstones, Milsom Street, Bath. All welcome, but please ring 01225 448515 to let them have an idea of numbers.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Safety in Numbers

Quite a few people I know are dealing with rejection at the moment. Some are unpublished, others have been published. It's tough out there, and I don't think any currently published writer feels safe. But that's not good to hear when you're still trying to get published and it seems like it will never happen for you.

Which is why I think that more than ever the right approach is the more the merrier. If you hang your hopes on one or two submissions, then the rejection is more painful. Each time it becomes harder to send out, knowing what may be in store. And then there's the time factor. A year can easily go by without success. It's dispiriting.

Contrast that with starting with an attitude that you're going to send out 50 times before you get an acceptance. That means you've got to get through 49 no's before you get the longed for yes. Then, each no you receive brings you closer to the desired yes. This may sound a bit too Positive Thinking for some people, but see it as an incentive to get the submissions sent out.

The more you have out at any one time, the less each rejection will hurt because you can still be hopeful about the ones that are still out there. I always had six submissions out there and although the rejections still hurt when they came, I think suffered less than those people who sent out their submissions in ones and twos.

I'm not looking for a new agent or publisher right now, but still I'm planning new projects - a non-fiction book, some picture book texts, and I've an idea for a detective series. If what I'm writing now doesn't work out for me, at least there's something else in the pipeline to look forward to. I think sending out lots of submissions isn't just practical, it's good for your mental health.

Come to the launch party for Kissing Mr Wrong, 6.30pm on 20th May at Waterstones, Milsom Street, Bath. All welcome, but please ring 01225 448515 to let them have an idea of numbers.

Friday, 14 May 2010

I Don't Believe It

Oh gosh, Kissing Mr Wrong was officially published yesterday, and I forgot to mention it. That's what happens, darlings, when you have as many books published as moi.

And it sort of does. It sounds very grand but with the first book you think the world is going to stop and go WOW! when your book comes out. And then you discover it doesn't. Even if you're very lucky, as I was, and get picked out for all sorts of nice treats and stuff, like being in the bestseller charts at the supermarkets and WH Smiths and doing book signings around the country, essentially no one notices. And if they do notice, they're not that impressed. You soon learn that 'woman writes book' doesn't exactly set the world on fire.

And then there's the muddle over publication day. Reviews turn up in the papers and magazines at all sorts of odd times. The copies are in the shops before official publication day. You've been able to buy Kissing Mr Wrong on Amazon for about a fortnight, for example, I've had my copies for about three weeks. What you think of as The Day becomes blurred. In my case, it's even more blurry because the launch party is still a week away (on the 20th, do come). So instead I went to the RNA Summer Party, and had a jolly nice time and forgot all about publication day. It's probably best that way.

Come to the launch party for Kissing Mr Wrong, 6.30pm on 20th May at Waterstones, Milsom Street, Bath. All welcome, but please ring 01225 448515 to let them have an idea of numbers.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

The Romantic Novelists Summer Party

I've been a member of the Romantic Novelists Association for the past eight years. I joined when someone told me that the parties were great for meeting agents. So off I went to my first RNA event, the Summer Party of 2002, happy in the knowledge that I was going to meet lots of agents. And do you know what - I did. The place was heaving with them.

Of course, they weren't bathed in glory as golden rays beamed down from the ceiling onto them, illuminating their all round fabulousness, in fact, they looked pretty much like any one else, but once I got into the swing of things, it was easy peasy. You just had to say, 'I'm hoping to meet agents,' and either the person would say, 'I'm one,' or point you in the right direction.

I have to say I think the several glasses of white wine I'd swigged back in quick succession helped me immensely with this process as I'm normally completely useless at parties and go all shy and tongue tied and end up self-consciously loitering in dark corners. But luckily the parties are reasonably short so I didn't end up falling over and making a fool of myself entirely, and the result was an agent signed me up. (Was it coincidence this was an agent I met after only one glass of wine?)

Today I'm off the the summer party again. I am older, wiser, and will be drinking less. But I will be meeting lots of friends and making new ones, and on the train home my jaws will ache from talking and smiling and laughing non-stop for three hours.

Come to the launch party for Kissing Mr Wrong, 6.30pm on 20th May at Waterstones, Milsom Street, Bath. All welcome, but please ring 01225 448515 to let them have an idea of numbers.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

How to Find the Perfect Title 2

So, how do you work out YOUR perfect title?

1) Look at other books in your genre that are currently published.
You're looking for patterns, for example, lots of one word titles or titles which contain place names. Are there puns or plays on words? Slightly risque?
I was picking out titles recently to do a class exercise and realised that a lot of women's fiction titles contain either women's names or place names.

2) List 'special' words.
There are some words that have more power than others. Lucky. Secret. Desire. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is one of my favourite titles ever (it's a good book, too), and all those nouns are special words.

3) What is the central theme, or themes of your book?
Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley knows he is talented, but no one seems to recognise his abilities and he is poor and friendless, hence The Talented Mr Ripley. Lu, the main character in my new book, is searching for Mr Right and makes lists of the characteristics of the perfect man. I played around with lots of ideas about Looking for Mr Right or Knowing Mr Perfect, before I realised that the book is about falling for someone who is off the list at which point the title was obvious: Kissing Mr Wrong. It's what the book is about.

4) Brainstorm
Armed with your lists of words and themes and an idea of the sort of title you're looking for, brainstorm. Do mind maps. Ask friends. I struggled with A Single to Rome. I knew it had to have an Italian theme - ciao, Rome, Romeo, ice cream, bella, amore were all on my list of words. A friend suggested A Single to Go, and it sparked off A Single to Rome. Believe it or not, I only realised there was a double meaning ages later when everyone kept saying what a clever title it was - Natalie's single and goes to Rome on a one way (single) ticket.

5) Check
Having come up with a brilliant title (or several brilliant titles) check them on Amazon. Ideally no one else will have had your title before, but the chances are it will have already been used. There is no copyright in titles. You can call your book The Da Vinci Code if you want. What will land you in trouble is if you appear to be 'passing off' your book for Dan Brown's, perhaps featuring a similar cover or contents.

6) Try it out
Ask around and see what people think of your title. Another Woman's Husband was originally called Another Man's Wife, but sales and marketing thought readers might get confused as to the contents of the book (I know - I didn't think it made sense either) so it became AWH. Recently I saw a book called The Faithless Wife. I prefer A Faithless Wife as a title, because it feels more inclusive, less condemnatory but that's my personal preference. What do you think?

Come to the launch party for Kissing Mr Wrong, 6.30pm on 20th May at Waterstones, Milsom Street, Bath. All welcome, but please ring 01225 448515 to let them have an idea of numbers.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

How to Find the Perfect Title 1

And another thing I can't believe is that I haven't blogged about titles before. What an omission. So here goes - what makes a perfect title...

1) Easy to say.
Who wants to look stupid when ordering or discussing a book?

2) Easy to spell.
If someone is searching on Amazon or Google and they get the spelling wrong, then the search engines won't find them.

3) Uncommon words
My name, Sarah Duncan, is fairly common. If someone does a Google search for me, my website does come up first, but there are lots of other Sarah Duncans around, as well as "...said Sarah. Duncan, on the other hand..." If your title has lots of common words then it's going to be harder to find on search engines.

4) Strong nouns
If I say "the book about the tractors", I bet most of you will know the book I mean. In fact, Penguin used that line to advertise Marina Lewycka's next book. (And I don't know how you pronounce her surname either.)

5) Fits in with the genre
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society doesn't sound like it's a thriller or teenage vampire book. In Cold Blood doesn't say romance. Titles need to match the genre.

6) Has some originality or quirkiness
Would Captain Corelli's Mandolin have done as well as The Italian with the Guitar?

More on finding the perfect title tomorrow...

Come to the launch party for Kissing Mr Wrong, 6.30pm on 20th May at Waterstones, Milsom Street, Bath. All welcome, but please ring 01225 448515 to let them have an idea of numbers.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Party Invite

Well it's 2010, there must be another book, and another launch party. The new book is Kissing Mr Wrong, officially out on 13th May, but getting a launch party at Waterstones, Bath on the 20th May. I am now terrified

a) that no one will turn up.
b) that three people will turn up and it will be horribly embarrassing.
c) but at least I know those three will be my family so they've seen more horribly embarrassing moments from me before. Worse will be that ten people will turn and so I will be horribly embarrassed in front of ten people who aren't my family.
d) lots of people will turn up but realise half way they've come to the wrong book launch and sneak out.
e) lots of people will turn up and buy lots of books, just none of them mine.

So if you can be lured to Bath for the launch party of Kissing Mr Wrong, there would be a warm, possibly slightly crazed-eyed, welcome for you. You don't have to let them or me know you're coming, but it would help re preparing the alcohol supplies, of which we don't want to run out.

Come to the launch party for Kissing Mr Wrong, 6.30pm on 20th May at Waterstones, Milsom Street, Bath. All welcome, but please ring 01225 448515 to let them have an idea of numbers.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Reading and Ice Skating

Someone recently emailed me and asked whether I thought they should read fiction as they want to write fiction. They had read fiction in the past, but at the moment they were mainly reading non-fiction.

I replied that it was a bit like me and ice skating. I can't do it - has no one noticed that ice is slippery? When I watch skaters I am awestruck. I think they're all brilliant. If it's the Olympics they're even more brilliant, which is about the limit of my critical facility. I can't even tell the difference between a triple axel or a double, it's all too fast and whizzy.

But if I watched lots of skating I'm fairly sure that I would gradually learn to distinguish one skater from another. (Only fairly sure it has to be admitted. Skating really isn't my thing.) And the more I watched the better I'd get at distinguishing the good from the brilliant, the average from the okay.

Reading is the same. The more you read, the better you become as a reader. And you learn what makes something work, or not work, by osmosis. Hopefully you can then transfer that knowledge to your writing. Now, it may be that you've read so much in the past the knowledge is hard wired into your system and you don't need to read so much now. But I think it's fair to say that most - all? - writers have been at some time heavy duty readers.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

What the Wastepaper Bin said to Me

This morning, rather bleary eyed as I was going about my daily ablutions, I reached down to drop a cottonwool ball into the wastepaper bin. There was nothing there. I checked. No, still not there. Slightly more awake, I remembered that everything had come out of the bathroom for when it was being re-painted, and the bin had gone back on the wrong side. And there it was.

It was habit that made me reach down with my left hand. Habit that told me I would find the bin there. I did it without thinking, as I do many tasks from brushing my teeth onwards. Writing is like a habit too. The more we write the easier it gets. I don't mean that the words are any better, but it becomes easier to get them down on the page.

The first story I ever wrote outside school was 400 words long and oh, how I struggled over it. Now, 400 words is nothing. I've got the writing habit, and it's easy for me to slip into the writing headspace. I write daily because I write daily. And because I write daily, it's easier for me to write daily. When (not if) I'm interrupted, it's easier for me to get back into my writing that it ever used to be.

Not all of my daily writing is novel writing. It's journalism and blogging and email and stuff like that. But the habit is there and it's all become easier. The more you write, the more you write. It's as simple as that.

Friday, 7 May 2010

I Do That Too!

In class last week one of the students wrote about sucking polo mints and having competitions on who could make them last longest when children. We all recognised that feeling of sucking them down to the finest ring of white neatly speared on the tip of the tongue, that sense of sadness when they broke up unexpectedly, or the hope that everyone else would forget what they were doing and just crunch.

Having a character do something, and for the reader to recognise that it's something they do is an easy way to make characters real. The first time I did it was by accident. I wrote about Isabel, the main character in Adultery for Beginners, trying on clothes to go to a job interview. She's not very confident and at one point she tries on a skirt:

"She sucked her tummy in as she pulled the zip up and looked in the mirror, arching round to check her rear view. No excessive bulges, although her legs looked ridiculous protruding from the bottom hem, two inches of solid white flesh then black ankle socks. Her feet looked enormous, and strangely flat."

At the time I was still doing my MA and one of my fellow students commented, 'I didn't know anyone else felt like that, that's just how I think mine look.' I was pleased, but didn't think much more of it. Now I realise that it was a clue to how to write believable characters: have them think real stuff, that real people think.

It's the basis of a lot of comedy, that feeling of recognition - I once saw a stand up do twenty minutes of hilarious routine based entirely on people's body language at check out queues. It was funny because, well, we all recognised ourselves and our little wiles and secret thoughts and unspoken etiquette. Your characters may be imaginary people, but give them real thoughts and they will become real.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Imaginary Places

'You really disappointed me,' the woman said, clutching a copy of A Single to Rome for me to sign. I gave a nervous smile, pen frozen in hand.

'Yes,' she continued. 'I'm going to Rome next month and I was really looking forward to visiting the Tea Museum, and then I read that you made it up. I'm really disappointed.'

Using public spaces and buildings as backdrops to a novel are a definite plus for most people, and all my books are set in real places. Smaller places, like individual cafes or private houses are different; I might use a real place, but not name it, or disguise it in some way. I know Rome well having been a student there and have visited many times subsequently, so when I was writing A Single to Rome it was easy for me to take my characters about the city but I couldn't write about the goings on of fictional characters running a real museum without expecting to be sued for libel. Plus, at the time of writing the first draft I didn't know whether the house Shelley lived in when he stayed in Rome was still standing.

The Tea Museum was completely fictional right from the start, from the contents to the layout. When you think about it, Rome's not an obvious place for one, but that's neither here not there. After the first draft I went back to Rome to check and discovered that Shelley's house was still there, and re-wrote the layout so the interior fitted the windows I could see from the exterior. I have no idea if in reality it looks anything like my layout inside (the building has been converted to offices so it would be unlikely), but it seems very real to me. I could take you up the staircase, I know what is in each cabinet of each room in every floor. I know how the light comes in through the windows, I know where there's a creak in the floorboards. I know what Olivia's office looks like, although we never go there in the book.

So I'm sorry the lady was disappointed when she discovered that the museum doesn't exist, and has never done so. But I'm also pleased I managed to make it as real for her as it is for me.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Rejection, Rejection, Rejection

A couple of nights ago I went to my writing group. We all met on the Creative Writing MA nearly ten years ago, and have been meeting every few weeks or so ever since. Bar one who is still on the first novel, they're all on their second or third books. I'm the only one who's had her novel published.

I am so impressed that they continue with writing. There have been near misses along the way, meetings with agents and publishers that have looked promising but haven't ended up in a contract, lots of positive rejections and so on. It's always a bit tricky offering advice because I don't want to appear patronising and besides, my choices are not necessarily paths they would choose to take. The only thing is...

It occurred to me that when I was looking for an agent I sent my work out to more agents than all of them together have done over the past ten years. And yes, it's tiring and yes, it can be hard to motivate yourself after yet another rejection, but I can't help thinking that if you're serious about getting published you have to get out there: it won't come to you.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Annie's Email

This morning I got an email from my sister Annie who lives abroad and is busy writing her second book on gardening. It talked about various family things and finished with the comment: I write a lot of words daily, but not on the book.

Oh, yes, I know that feeling. Each of my blog posts are between 300-500 words, and I've nearly done 200 since I started last year. So roughly that's 80,000 words since October on the blog alone. Then there are emails. Some days are better than others, but I must do at least 10 a day, let's say averaging 100 words although some are much longer, and not many are shorter. That's another 20,000. Then there's Twitter. Okay so it's only 140 characters, but perhaps five times a day? (I may be deluding myself here.) Another couple of thousand for sure.

In other words, I've written enough words for a book since October, though it's not a real book. I've also been writing a real book - a novel - at the same time. I've done quite a few thousand words on that too, but not as many as my blog. If only I'd done the same word count for my book as for my blog...

Perhaps that should be my new resolution. Write as much as you blog and email. Sounds simple, doesn't it?

Monday, 3 May 2010

Bank Holiday Writing

An exercise for the Bank Holiday, on the grounds that it's bound to rain. Try and do this one without reading ahead.

Write a sentence, any sentence.
Choose two words out of the sentence and ring them.
Write two new sentences, incorporating the two chosen words.
Choose four words you like from the two new sentences.
Write four new sentences, incorporating the four chosen words.
Choose eight new words you like from the four new sentences.
Write eight sentences, incorporating the eight chosen words.
Then carry on writing and see where it leads.

It's easy to get into ruts with our writing. This adds a random element and gently pushes you to new places.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

How Long is Piece of String - or a Short Story?

Having covered novel lengths, I'm having a go at short stories. Again, a short story is as long or short as it needs to be. However, you'll find there are certain parameters.

Generally the maximum length for a short story is 5000 words. Yes, they can be longer - look at Alice Munro. But in terms of doing stuff with stories - entering competitions, getting published in magazines etc - you'll find 5000 words is the upper limit.

Most short story competitions usually give a maximum, not a minimum. 2000, 2500 or 3000 are common maximums, but there are competitions that stipulate a maximum of 1000.

Radio 4 short stories are usually 2200 - 2400 words - the length is dictated by the reading time available, 14 minutes.

If you're interested in writing for the women's magazine market you need to check each magazine's requirements as they change frequently, but generally a one page story will be 1000 words, two pages 2000. Therefore they only need 1000 word or 2000 word stories, not 1500 word ones. There are some magazines that carry longer stories, up to 3000 words, or shorter ones, usually around 800 words.

Flash fiction is an area I've not tried myself but it's for shorter stories, maximum 150 words. And there's also Twitter which ran a short story competition a few months ago, maximum 140 characters.

Generally, the most useful length is 2000-2500 words, enough space to get some depth, but with a limit on how much breadth. But as ever, don't worry about it while you're writing. Just get it written.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

How Long is Piece of String - or a Novel?

When I'm writing I don't think about how long a novel is going to be, I'm just writing, and although I obsessively check my daily out put and moan or cackle gleefully depending on how little/much I've achieved, I don't bother with what the running total is. But despite this I usually come in at about the same amount, about 100,000 words. Most writers I've spoken to say that they're the same, writing without watching the word count but ending up with a fairly consistent word total.

As a general rule - and as we all know, rules are of course made to be broken - a mainstream adult novel is between 80,000 - 110,000 words. You'd expect a saga to be towards the top end of the scale or even beyond it, perhaps 120,000 words. Genre fiction - crime, fantasy, romance - might dip under 80,000. Mills and Boon comes in at 5o,000, although the historicals are 70,000-75,000 words.

A novella is perhaps 40,000 - 60,000, but the truth is that they don't sell unless by well known authors and even then there may be grumblings - every review on Amazon of Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach mentions the shortness of the book. We expect our books to be a certain number of pages and feel cheated if we don't get them, however gorgeous the prose. If you're determined to write novellas, can I suggest joining two (or three) to make a longer work, preferably one that could be marketed as a novel. Or look into self publishing.

Children's fiction is divided into age bands. Books aimed at the very youngest, the picture book texts and first readers, would come in at a maximum of 1000 words, though could be far fewer. Books for 5-7 year olds are around 1000-6000 words, 7-9 year olds 5,000 - 20,000 words, 9-12 year olds, 15,000 - 60,000 words, 12 upwards, 30,000+ words. A lot depends on the book - obviously the Harry Potter books start at upwards of 100,000 and just get longer, which meant publishers started buying longer children's fiction.

Book length is determined in part by fashion (see Harry Potter) and in part by external costs. In the 1980s bonkbusters and sagas could weigh in at 200,000+ words, but have become shorter as the paper costs have gone up. Our attention span is also believed to be shorter, though I'm not sure if that's really true (see Harry Potter. Again.).

If you finish and you're way over or under these guidelines, you'll either have to cut, add, or get creative - Lord of the Rings was originally published as 3 books; many a novel started as short stories. But overall I think it's best to simply write the best book you can, and worry about length later.