Writing Advice

I hope this is all of some use to you both inspirationally and facts-wise.  There are some more features on my articles page which may prove of interest.

Please don’t send me your manuscripts.  I’m sorry but I just don’t have time to read them or mentor anyone – no exceptions (it’s a basic courtesy that you don’t send unsolicited manuscripts to authors). Writing books is a full-time job+ for me which is why I’ve put all the info that I can think of on these Writing Advice pages and I hope it helps. 

I’m traditionally published and write commercial fiction books for adults.  I’m afraid I know nothing about other genres, children’s books or self-publishing.

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.

WRITE LITTLE AND OFTEN

If you only write 250 words a day – that’s a 91,000 word book at the end of the year. Aim for that and 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. Much better to do that and keep in the flow of your story than to write 5000 words one day and nothing for 2 months.  You’ll spend a wasted chunk of time getting yourself back into the swing of your tale. 

THE FALSE BRICK WALL

KNOW that every writer will be a few chapters into their book and think ‘this is rubbish.’ That is the time when a lot of writers down tools 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.  IT’S FOG NOT A BRICK WALL. 

THE HELPFUL ITALIAN TOMATO

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!

STEPHEN KING RULES OKAY

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.

WRITERS READ TOO

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. Read an Agatha Christie and then read it again now you know whodunnit. See how she sprinkles clues throughout – enough to tease, not enough to tell. The more you read, the more you will absorb vocabularly and style without even thinking about it.

PLOTTER OR PANTSTER?

Writers work in so many different ways – I can’t plan, yet 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 JUST YOUR WAY. You’ll find your own system. Test and try out – read ‘how to’ books. They can’t do you any harm. As I say, I can’t plan.  I wish I could. I just set off and write and see where the road takes me. Chaos.  After that, I get more organised with the second draft.  I pat it into shape, iron out the inconsistencies, fit it into a timetable.  My order starts to come with the second draft. 

If you can plan – great, I envy you so much.

Some people write down plot points on post-it notes and then stick them on a wall where they can move them around.  I can’t do that either.  I hate these clever organised people. 

BOOKS THAT MIGHT HELP YOU

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?

THE HARD WORD

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 a brain surgeon saying ‘I want to be the best brain surgeon ever but I don’t know even know where the hippocampus is.’ Can you imagine his response?  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 and stop focussing on your dodgy 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.

I knew everything about my craft years before I got published.  No one held my hand through the process.  This is a lonely business and you have to do the work and drive yourself. It’s not a job for softies or for people wanting a quick route to fame and fortune.

Agents

Someone 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. However, 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.

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.

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 then 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.

A COVERING LETTER TO 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.

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. And only book yourself out for a one hour slot – which can be a heck of a long time if no one turns up.  Take a pad and pen so you can doodle.

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.

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 them but don’t panic.  With any luck the figures will rise again with later books.  You haven’t built up a readership yet.  

BOOK 3 & ONWARDS

By BOOK 3 things should be getting a lot more exciting because you’ll be starting to build up a readership (but it can take people a lot longer than 3 books, it’s not an exact science). With any luck though new readers who like book 3, may go and buy book 1 & 2 on the strength of their enjoyment.

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. 

READINGS

I have to admit, readings can be so bloody boring to listen to and will do nothing for your sales so inject some life into them when you read aloud.  I find it a good idea to photocopy the chapter and then clip it a little shorter. Take out superfluous description, 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 camped out 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

YOU NEVER STOP LEARNING

The more successful you get, the more you realise that you never stop learning in this job.  You also get invited to some great events and asked to do some interesting things but learn to be discerning and do not be afraid of saying ‘no’ politely when you need to.  You cannot attend every event and help every just cause.

But it never gets any easier to do that first draft.  I still look at the blank page and think ‘Have I 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. The self-doubts never go, the rotten reviews on Amazon still make you swear… and still you wouldn’t change what you do.

DON’T READ THE REVIEWS

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 personally are a rubbish person. 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. DON’T ENGAGE. 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 entering the ring 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.  It can help get some perspective on things.  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.  It’s just a way of processing the info.  Or you could – as author Jenny Colgan once told me to – DO NOT READ THE REVIEWS.  DO NOT GOOGLE YOURSELF. If the publisher is renewing your contracts, that’s all you should really be interested in.

What I also find helps is to look up the one star reviews on Amazon on books that you thought were amazing.  You’ll see that some people actually loathe Jane Eyre (I know – how can this be?) E.L. James

has LOADS of bad reviews, and she’s doing okay, isn’t she?  I bet she doesn’t even quirk an eyebrow to hear she’s a ‘bad writer’ when she is counting her millions.  And those aren’t my words – I don’t slag off fellow writers.  Bad form. 

PR

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.

SOCIAL MEDIA

Get yourself on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram – 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. 

Try and put different content on them all (easier said than done) but the more you put on Instagram, the more people will see your photos.  Don’t talk to me about algorithms because it’s too complicated for my brain but less is definitely not more with social media.

Use social media to promote your own stuff – you’d be mad not to BUT you’ll be unfollowed and muted if that’s all you do.  Share something of yourself with your readers.  Promote your fellow writers too – give out some goodwill.  

SELF PROMOTION

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. Ask the village hall if you can borrow it for a night and do an event. 

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 (my first one couldn’t have kept me in Twixs for a month). 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. I am one of the lucky ones, by the way.  I think the average that a jobbing author earns is about £10k. But then I worked my backside off to climb up the greasy pole.  Sometimes you can’t rely on luck and have to settle for graft. 

It’s better to have a small advance than a big advance and not ‘earn out’. 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 job. Unless you strike it really lucky.

The way my agent described it to me is that psychologically – it’s better that a bookshop/supermarket buy in 3000 copies and sell them all than it is if they buy 6000 copies and sell 4000. Because then they are left with 2000 surplus and that has negative connotations.

Say for instance you get a two book deal. How it usually works is that the publishers pay you 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. A lot of people when they ‘find’ a new author, go and buy all the back list. Think of a slow but sure burn.

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 AND EARNING OUT

Earning out.  If you don’t know what this means, let me make it simple.  You are given an advance of – for argument’s sake – £100.  Imagine that for every book you sell, you get 10p.  Imagine that in the first six months you sell 100 books – that is £10.  That £10 is taken off the ‘advance debt’ you owe the publisher – so your royalty statement will say your ‘unearned balance is £90’.  Then your book catches fire in the shops and you sell 1000 books in the second half of the year.  1000 x 10p – that’s £100.  You’ve not only cleared your debt  (or ‘earned out’) but are £10 in profit now – that profit is a ROYALTY.  You’ll get a royalty payment for £10 (minus your agent fees).  In the next year you sell 500 books.  You’ve got no ‘debt’ now – so (minus agent fees) you’ll get 500 x 10p = £50. Hopefully you’ll get a little more than this…  but you can see what I’m getting at. 

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.

PLR & ALCS

I’m always surprised how many new authors don’t know about this… every time your book is borrowed from a library, you get a cut. It’s a small cut – but it mounts up! It’s capped at about £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. The numbers on Amazon – the ASIN numbers do not qualify.  You can claim 60% for audio books. 

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 because it might have been given a new one for the new edition and then you’ll need to register the new ISBN if it has (as it had changed in my case).

And also register all your written 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.