Writing Tips

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A few ideas that just might help you winkle that book out of you

As you’re reading this, remember that these are my experiences – and I’ve picked up from other authors that many are common ones. They’re not set in stone. Film deals happen and millionaires are made overnight but be prepared for a humbler start, just in case.

If you only write 250 words a day – that’s a 91,000 word book at the end of the year. Force yourself (I bet you write more) As a guide 250 words is approx 1 sheet of A4 DOUBLE SPACED. So hardly anything!

Write everyday – that way there will be continuity.

KNOW that every writer will be a few chapters into their book and think ‘this is bollocks.’ That is the time when a lot of writers jack it in and start a fresh project. But they’ll come to that point again. Don’t stop, carry on through that mini depression. It’s a natural part of the process. Published writers work through that fog and get to the light at the other side.

And if you have problems with time management – this little system is invaluable: The Pomodoro system. It’s invaluable if you have lots of little jobs to do and want to tie yourself down to a concentrated period. It’s a timed system – 25 minutes during which you work hard and ignore Twitter, Facebook, your mum on the phone (emergencies excepted). You work for 25 mins, then have a 5 minute break. Do that four times and then you can have a 30 minute break. BUT if you just want to tie yourself down to 25 minutes to do one task – then use it for that. It’s better than nothing!

Read Stephen King’s ‘On Writing‘. Before reading this it took me days to write one chapter because I was continually editing what I wrote – no good because I had to re-edit it when it was in context of the book. SK taught me to get my story down from start to finish. It doesn’t matter if it is in a very raw state – it’s easier to edit when it’s complete.

And don’t forget to read other people’s books. Writers ALWAYS find time to read. Read for pleasure as well as analytically. Jot down phrases you think work particularly well and work out why they do.

Writers work in so many different ways – I can’t plan, other friends of mine have to plot the book completely before they set off. THERE IS NO RIGHT OR WRONG WAY TO WRITE A BOOK. You’ll find your own system. Test and try out – read ‘how to’ books. They can’t do you any harm.

I liked a book by Jack M Bickham which covers The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes in bite-sized pieces. Very easy to read with some very good points.

These books by Jane Wenham-Jones are particularly good because she calls on the advice and wisdom of many published authors – Wannabe a Writer? and Wannabe a Writer We’ve Heard Of?

Take a look on  my articles page to see if there is anything on there which may help you!

HOW DO I WRITE A BOOK?

So many times I get letters that say ‘How do I write a book? I can’t spell, I don’t know grammar and I haven’t any ideas.’  It’s a bit like me writing to Stephen Hawking saying ‘I want to do Time Travel but I don’t know anything about science.’  I wouldn’t expect him to teach me just as I can’t coach you.  But if you are adamant you want to have a go… I would always suggest that you just dive in.   Don’t focus on your bad spelling or grammar, just write and see where it takes you.  This article might help if you are a total and absolute beginner without a clue.

 

 

Agents

A lady asked me how long she should wait after submitting her work to an agent before she would hear anything. I asked my agent. Sorry, but you have to wait it out. But if an agent has contacted you to say ‘don’t send this out to anyone else,’ you are within your rights to ask for an update after a couple of months. Just don’t make your email sound pressuring or blackmaily or cross.

But it’s a VERY slow process by nature. And the worst, most frustrating part of the whole business. Agents can receive 300 submissions a week! They look through them all because they want to find the diamonds in the rough who will make them money, so don’t think they’re not.

I think it’s unrealistic of agents to expect you to send your work to one at a time and wait months. I didn’t. I sent 5, waited 6 weeks and then sent 5 more out to different agents. I didn’t chase the ones that failed to return. I reckoned I was on a slush pile by then. But one man’s slush pile is another’s treasure pot…

And whilst we are on the subjects of agents – shop around for one which will be a good match. It is so tempting to sign up with anyone who will take you on, but force yourself to think long term. You need an agent who you can talk to, who will be your spokesman with a publisher, who you get on with because this is a very important relationship.   Look in the Writers and Artists yearbook where you’ll find them all listed. Oh and there is no point in sending your fiction ideas to an agent who specifies that he only deals in non-fiction. And don’t send a full manuscript to an agent who only wants to see the first chapter. He won’t think you’re enterprising – he will think you’re a knob who can’t understand a simple instruction and you’ll find yourself fast-tracked to a slush pile.

Don’t be tempted to send your manuscript to a publisher (unless they have some sort of competition where they are asking for submissions). Send it to an agent. If that agent likes your stuff, they will recommend it to a publisher with whom they have relationships and know what that publisher might go for. Sending your work to an agent who presents it to a publisher who might have already seen your work and rejected it, isn’t doing anyone any favours. You are more likely to get your work accepted if you work with an agent.

Your covering letter to an agent should be relevant and succinct. An agent does not need or want to know that you won Miss Teenage Blackpool in 1987. He might want to know that you won The Blackpool Gazette prize for best short story last year. KEEP IT RELEVANT.

1 – Brief opening. (Hi, my name is XXX and I’ve written a book about xxx which I hope your agency might be interested in presenting to a publisher etc.)

2 – Give a BRIEF summary of the book. Make the agent want to read more.

3 – The market position – help him and yourself by specifying which genre your book falls into so he can pitch it efficiently.

4 – A little RELEVANT information about yourself. You don’t need to write that ‘you want this deal so badly it hurts’. Everyone who writes to an agent wants it so badly that it hurts. Do you have a creative writing qualification? Are you in the RNA? Have you won an award for your writing (but not a star at primary school for your version of Incy Wincy Spider!) Has Stephen King read your work and thinks you’re fab? (if yes, put that down. But NEVER lie). If your book is about a mountain-climber and you have climbed Everest, put it in. Information here has to endorse your book. Did I say it has to be relevant?

5 – A polite round off. Thanks for your time. Hope to hear from you. Include a telephone number and an email address.

 

Do you write the whole book before pitching?

Well I didn’t. I didn’t want to write a whole book if it was going to be rejected as a no-go in the market place. BUT I did have a detailed synopsis – I knew where the book was going and what was going to happen to the end. I sent off the first three chapters, as asked for and that synopsis. An agent can tell from those your ‘hookability’ and your ability to tell a story well. But they are unlikely to pitch a book to a publisher until it’s finished, so be aware of that.

Oh and don’t even think about sending an unsolicited manuscript to an author as refusal might offend. (You’d be surprised how many times I’m asked to read a total stranger’s work, guide them, edit and correct it only for them only for them to turn huffy when I say no. Try asking a musician to come over for a few days and teach you how to play The Flight of the Bumble Bee!). We haven’t got the time to take days out to read it and we are on the same side of the fence as you are. You need an agent’s eyes on your work, they’re the ones who can guide you, as they guide us.

You’re Published!

So you got there. Congratulations.   Alas this is where your work really starts, not where it ends. Getting a book deal is not the top of Everest, it’s base camp.

Book 1

…is so exciting. You may think it won’t get any better, but it does. This is your first toe in the water. You’ve made it. And you are expecting your big champagne launch with lobster canapes.

Well… you might get one, but your publicity department will have a budget and that is earmarked for getting you sales. If it comes to bunging a high street shop the money to place your book in a prominent position or buying some Lanson and salmon pinwheels for your mates and people who will buy your book anyway – which do you think they will do?

Most money on the budgets disappears on behind-the-scenes stuff like magazine space and posters. Be prepared to dip into your own pocket and do your own launch and PR. Contact local bookshops or supermarkets stocking your novel. At the beginning it might be that few people will turn up but don’t worry – we all have to start somewhere. When you are better known and enjoyed, more turn up and love to meet you. Take a pad and pen so you can doodle. And book yourself out for a one hour slot – which can be a heck of a long time if no one turns up.

Oh and make sure you start REALLY advertising your book a very short time before it comes out. No point in asking people to buy a book that they can’t get hold of for months. They are likely to forget.

Book 2

You’re getting more in your swing of it now. But this is the important book and worth giving it all you have. Often book 2s have a hard act to follow and aren’t as successful – there’s a known ‘dip’ with book 2 and you have to see those sales figures going up again with book 3, so don’t be despondent if you are visited by the ‘Book 2 Curse.’

Book 3

By BOOK 3, things should be getting a lot more exciting because you’ll be starting to build up a readership. People will actually be waiting for your book to come out – what a compliment. And new readers who like book 3, may go and buy book 1 & 2 on the strength of their enjoyment. You may see that your Amazon ratings (authors check these once every five minutes – it’s perfectly normal to do that AND to Google yourself) on your backlist shoot up as well.

Get yourself on a local speaker list if you haven’t already. There are lots of WI meetings and pensioners clubs in towns these days crying out for speakers and they LOVE writers. You’ll get a small fee (£30 – £50), AND you can sell books at the end – and they’re great fun to do and expand your readership. And they shove scones down your neck as well. Don’t do work for free unless you have a good reason for it (loyalty for a group who gave you a leg up, for instance). You just can’t afford to travel 150 miles for no fee. You wouldn’t ask the plumber to do you a free job in exchange for you giving him some advertising, yet authors are always asked to do this. It’s a JOB – you have a mortgage and bills to pay and so you have to value your services because if you don’t, no one else will.

Book 4

By BOOK 4 you’ll have learned a lot more. You’ll (hopefully) have a solid readership following you and a good backlist to offer anyone who comes to you first at this stage.

If you do a reading from your books, I find it a good idea to photocopy the chapter and then clip it a little shorter. Miss out a bit of description which reads better than it sounds and make it snappier to the ear. And don’t make it too long. Also pick a passage which stands up in isolation and you don’t have to explain for an hour what is happening in it.

Don’t be too despondent if national papers aren’t braying at your door. Use the local press to build up your profile – the nationals will follow when your local people have lifted you up on their shoulders 🙂

…Book 8

By BOOK 8 you’ll have learned that you never stop learning. You are invited to so many things that you’re constantly saying ‘no’. You have to be discerning with which invitations to take up.

But it never gets any easier to do that first draft.  I still look at the blank page and think ‘I don’t have another 100k words in me.’  I am riddled with anxiety.  Even when I have the first draft done I think ‘I can’t pat this into shape – I just can’t.’  You never stop having that dip in the middle of a book, look at the screen and declare what you have written as mighty fine crap. The self-doubts never go, the rotten reviews on Amazon still make you swear… and you still wouldn’t change what you do.

Talking of rotten reviews…

Develop a thick skin

Stick your head above the parapet and you’ll have to prepare to get shot at. You can’t please all of the people all of the time and some won’t like what you’re written – and feel duty bound to tell the rest of the world via Amazon and Goodreads reviews. You can get attacked for the most outrageous things when you’re an author and be told that you can’t write, your books are a waste of money and you’re rubbish. I was once criticised for not putting any PMT in my books. And it’s a truth that a single bad review can weigh more than twenty good ones. Of course they hurt – but, alas, this is the game we have signed up to and the era that we live in makes it so much easier for people to criticise.

I have got into conversations with some of the critics on the net who were particularly vicious and been savaged for that. And don’t post a link to a rubbish review because you’ll be accused of garnering counter-reviews from your loyal followers, even if your only intention was to share a WTF moment. I’ve fallen into all the pitfalls as a gobby northerner. So learn from my mistakes – don’t get involved in an on-line row. Just walk away. Trolls thrive in the shady world of the net and their intention is to poke people into engaging and then win in a wounding competition. Don’t feed them by drawing attention to their negativity. Don’t give them the oxygen of their attention – you’ll p*** them off far more with your indifference.

However we are only human and I have been known to look up on Amazon what those super-negative reviewers have also given their informed opinions on.  If they haven’t reviewed anything else – just lucky you, read from that what you will (troll alert.  Your new boyfriend’s ex perhaps?)  Some people just like to moan.  There’s a sort of comfort to be had knowing that the reviewer hates your book, hates the potato peeler she bought, thinks Harry Potter is stupid, thinks the Poppy reed diffuser smells like feet… like I say, some people just don’t want to be pleased.

What I also find helps is to think of a massive name author, then look on Amazon at some of their one star reviews. E.L. James has LOADS. And she’s doing okay, isn’t she?

Some PR things I’ve picked up

Your publicist and your editors are hard-working bods. However they aren’t just looking after you – they’re looking after other authors and though their radar will be on all year and any opportunity to promote you, they will take, you may find that after the ‘honeymoon’ period of getting signed up and finishing your big edit AND after your first book launch, it’s as if someone has switched off that big warm limelight and you’re all alone.

Think of yourself as on a wheel. You’ll get to the high spot, then you’ll fall into virtual shade until it’s your book launch time again and you’ll be in the light. Don’t panic about the lack of contact. They’re BUSY people – you’ll get your turn. This ‘darkness’ will light up again. Get yourself on Facebook and Twitter – hook up with other authors and share your anxieties with them. You need a support network to tell you that you aren’t going mad.

Remember no one has as much time as you do to promote yourself. Make friends with the local bookshops and supermarkets – go in and introduce yourself to the manager. Ask if you can do a book signing there when your book comes out.

Get on local radio. You probably won’t get any pay (or expenses) but it’s good PR – and great fun.

Offer to write an article for the local newspaper in exchange for a bit of publicity. Don’t ignore the power of your local press. We all want to get into the nationals but it’s much easier to do that when you have a strong local profile.

Prepare to spend some money on promoting yourself. Give yourself a budget – it’s tax deductible.

Invest in some good photos that can be used for press releases. Ones that reflect your personality – some posing with your new book, some without.

Get a website. My website bloke is available here – you don’t need to come to Barnsley – it can all be done via phone and net – as his clients in America and Canada will testify. Or do a blog – or both. But get people interested in you. Reporters trawl the net – they just might catch you for a juicy piece of publicity. Oh and if you do a blog or website – maintain it often!

Do a talk at the local library and sell some stocks of your book afterwards. Go and see some authors talking and see what the content of their talks is and how they structure them.

Local literary festivals? Do a reading and/or sit on a panel and answer questions.

Money

Okay – so you’ve got your book deal and the publishers and the agent are shining a big limelight on you. You’ve read about the million pound advances but when you get yours its decidedly smaller than you expected. Remember the market could be better so getting a book deal when publishers are extra picky is something to proud of. But you may have to hang onto the day job for a little longer than expected. I gave my day job up at book 5, incidentally – but money was tight. By book 7, I was earning a ‘proper living’ ie: if the washing machine broke, I didn’t have to go busking.

It’s better to have a small advance than a big advance and not ‘earn out’. You’re a less attractive prospect if you’re books don’t make the big bucks, than if you have a steady year on year increase. This is a game where you are in for the long haul. If you want a guaranteed get-rich-quick career – you’re in the wrong place.

The way my agent described it to me is that psychologically –it’s better that a bookshop/supermarket buy in 3000 copies and sell out than it is if they buy 6000 copies and sell 4000. Because then they are left with 2000 surplus and that has negative connotations. It does make sense – you just have to concentrate on the stigma and ignore the figures!

Say for instance you get a two book deal. You get paid in 3 blocks for each book.

  • for signature on the contract (so you get a nice chunk of 2/6 straightaway as you sign for both)
  • for producing the manuscript
  • on publication

My agent scared me to death when he said that it may be 10 books in before I start making any serious money. Especially because everyone thinks authors are instant millionaires – me included at the beginning. Money is wonderful but building a readership is very important. Don’t despair when you hear the words ‘I love your book, I’ve passed it around to all my friends!’ It might not help your bank balance to hear that short-term, but it will long-term. And when you see your book heavily discounted don’t gulp. People will buy books if they are priced well and you will build up a strong fan base. And pass it to friends abroad. You need the word spreading. A lot of people when they ‘find’ a new author, go and buy all the back list. Think of a slow but sure burn.

So at first you’re likely to get a sixth of your advance for the manuscript (which will have secured your book deal no doubt) and 2 x sixths for signing the contract for book 1 and book 2. A half – in short.

You’ll get paid for any foreign rights deals made as well – some pay out a flat fee, others pay on signature and publication. There are also large-print and audio rights and digital ebook rights. Some of these might not be in hard cash – they may be set against your royalties helping you to earn out quicker – it all depends what your agent has agreed.

Royalties get paid at the end of March and the end of September. You should get a royalty statement that will show you how your books are doing, even if you haven’t earned out. Even with smallish advances, it can take a few years to earn out but it does happen – I’ve earned out on a few of my books now. PLR rights are paid in February and ALCS payments are made in February and August.

I’m always surprised how many new authors don’t know about this… everytime your book is borrowed from a library, you get a cut. It’s a small cut – but it mounts up! It’s capped at £6,600 per year and gets paid (very promptly) in February, once a year.  There are also Irish public lending rights which need to be synchronised with the British ones.  Go to www.bl.uk/plr and go to Registration Service Forms/Leaflets section for more information on this.

Also register your ebooks and audio books with PLR.  You’ll find the ISBN number if you look up the CDs online.

As soon as you have an ISBN number for your book – register it at this address, http://www.plr.uk.com/ . You’ll need to do it before the end of June for it to be included in the next year’s figures so don’t miss out.

AND if your book gets sold for large print rights – you’ll have a separate ISBN number and need to register that.

If, as happened to me, your books are given new jackets over time check the ISBN number has or hasn’t changed – because you’ll need to register the new ISBN if it has (as it had changed in my case).

Also register your books with Irish PLR, http://www.plr.ie/tag/irish-plr/.

And also register all your books – including translated ones because PLR rights for a lot of countries are collected via ALCS so it can be quite a chunk – at www.alcs.co.uk (the Authors’ Licensing and Collection Society) They recover monies due to you which have been collected when anyone has used your work and you are due secondary royalties – in performances for instance. There is a one off fee of £25.00 but that is taken from your first due monies so there is nothing to pay up front.  They don’t pay out on ebooks or audio books YET but if they have ISBN numbers, register them anyway because you might save yourself some time if they ever do start to collect on them.

Also register any articles you have written for national newspapers and magazines – you’ll need the ISSN number of the magazine which is situated IN the barcode (see the ALCS site for how to find it) So don’t cut out your article and throw the rest of the publication away until you’ve recorded it.

Articles have to have been written on a freelance basis.