Me Myself and I

As writers, we naturally like to think of ourselves as imaginative people. People who can weave a story out of thin air, pull sparkling and arresting characters from the ether, create Machievellian twists and turns of plot with audacious creative flair. We follow the whims of fancy, allowing them to take us where they wish, until at the end of it, we have a story or a novel – hopefully original, possibly unique, but definitely MADE UP.

Well, unfortunately, our friends and family are unlikely to see it the same way. In some little corner of their minds, no matter how unacknowledged, they will be harbouring a conviction. Oh, you might tell them that your novel is based on nothing but your own imagination, but they know the truth. They know that, really,
it’s all about you. It’s an autobiography, thinly disguised as fiction, and by reading it, they are going to discover all your deepest darkest secrets. Let the hunt commence!

My debut novel, THE ART OF LOSING, is not what you would call a cheery tale. Over the course of its 80,000 words, I cover death, loss, grief, infidelity, incest and plenty more besides. Funnily enough, it is not an autobiographical novel. If I had that much drama in my life, I think I’d have my hands full dealing with it, let alone having enough time to put finger to keypad. And yet I am uneasily aware of that all-too-common perception, that novelists (and debut novelists in particular) write about what they know. “It’s very good,” a friend said to me encouragingly, upon reading an advance copy of my book. “But…” Her voice dropped, taking on a diffident, caring tone. “I didn’t know you felt that way about relationships.” What way, I politely enquired. “Well, you know…” I listened to a summary gleaned from various pronouncements made by my novel’s two narrators. Useless to protest that these were only characters, that their thoughts and feelings did not necessarily tally with my own. By creating them, I had apparently taken ownership of them too.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that our own opinions, emotions and relationships never trickle down into our work. In fact, it took a cautious suggestion from my mother for me to realise that one of my narrators, Nicholas, bore more than a passing similarity to my own father, both physically and in character. I protested that any resemblance was purely accidental, but privately, looking back at what I had written, I wondered how it could have been. All at once I was struck by a terrible thought – what if my novel actually was a 240-page confessional tome, and I hadn’t even realised it? I found myself poring over the words, wondering if I had let too much of myself slip into the story. It’s a dangerous business, this writing – it opens you up to scrutiny, not only from your readers but from yourself too.

Eventually, I called a truce with myself. I know that my novel is far from being based on personal experience, but at the same time, it is me – it has come out of my head, and so even when my characters do and say things that I would never do in real life, I can’t entirely disassociate myself from them. I wonder if any of us could truly say that our work was devoid of autobiographical elements? On that note, I’ll leave you. I’m off to plot a murder to lay the ground for a little crime idea I’ve got bubbling…

No showing off please, we're British

We all know conflict is essential in fiction. There must be conflict right from the word go, otherwise no one will ever, EVER read our stories.

The conflict on the page, however, is the least of what it means to be a writer. We have other inner battles to contend with. Whether, for example, to leave the computer and do some exercise or whether to stay put and eat another Jaffa Cake. But the internal conflict I didn't anticipate was the one over trying to talk about my book.

This happens after you have supposedly got over all the hurdles. An agent and publisher like your work. You have a fixed date for it coming out, there's a gorgeous cover design, and your mum's friends are all bizarrely impressed at the notion that they will know an actual celebrity who will have millions of pounds just like J. K. Rowling.

The conflict arises when you know that your credibility, writing career and finances depend on people buying – and preferably enjoying – your book. And yet you want to die with embarrassment at the thought of having to go out and tell the world how supposedly great it is.


A confident, well-groomed person, looking rather like Audrey Hepburn, leaves everyone open-mouthed with admiration at the vivacious and yet intellectual way in which she mentions her masterpiece.

“What's it about?” an admirer begs to know, and the author smiles intelligently.

“Well,” she replies. “I see my book as being essentially about determination and survival.” The listener cranes in, captivated by the author's unparalleled combination of brains and beauty. “It's about two isolated people recognising themselves in each other and discovering a shared enislement in a society that wants to keep them in their place.”


A red-faced person, dressed courtesy of the skip out the back of Oxfam, twiddles an empty wine glass and notices that the person she is talking to keeps looking past her in the hope that someone will rescue them.

“So,” the non-admirer says, stifling a yawn. “Are there any wizards in it?”

“Uh,” the author replies. “It's just stuff about people throwing stuff at each other and stuff, and there's kind of some gruesome stuff ... and ...” (non-admirer waves at someone across the room) “and ... and stuff like that.”

Plugging a book just feels so showy-offy and un-British. It's just not the done thing to look pleased with oneself, is it? If, like the wonderful Gail Trimble of University Challenge, you awkwardly admit that you might be quite clever and possibly might have achieved something, you can even induce violent hatred.

It's more acceptable to mumble about how the book's not really very good and it didn't take that long to write and no one's going to like it so it's probably a good thing that no one will ever read it anyway. And it's up to people whether or not they buy it and if they don't want to that's all right because that's up to them and they don't have to and I won't be offended ...

And yet that doesn't actually impress anyone. If we writers don't appear to have confidence in our work, why should others? So how do I talk about my book without making people mutter “Who does she think she is?”

All you proper authors out there – how do you do it?

Thank you to Steve Knight for his Union flags photo.

Quickfire Questions with... Sue Wright

Sue Wright is married with three children and a tortoiseshell cat and lives in Worthing in West Sussex. Her main hobby is reading and her ambition is to have a novel published one day. Sue says she prefers writing "weird" stories best.

My first sale was…
to Take A Break’s Fiction Feast in 1998!

My family think my writing is…
silly –until the money comes in.

The best/worst thing about writing short stories for magazines is…
best is seeing them published and illustrated– worst is all the rejections. Never gets any easier to cope with them.

Long hand first or computer?
Computer first.

On completing a story I feel…
very satisfied.

When I run out of ideas I …
plunge into depression, telling anybody and everybody that I’m never going to be able to write anything ever again.

Ideas come to me when…
I least expect them.

My biggest tip for new women’s mag writers would be…
to read lots of magazines to get a feel for what’s being published.

3 authors – dead or alive I’d like to invite to dinner would be…
1)Charles Dickens, 2)John Irving, 3)Stephen King.

Favourite writing outfit?
Joggers and sweatshirt

Favourite writing snack?
Chocolate, especially Bounty

Daily Mail or Guardian?
Neither – The Weekly News is the only paper I read and it’s brilliant.

Best woman’s magazine story I’ve read during the last three months is…
not sure, but probably something by Teresa Ashby or Della Galton. They’re both widely published for a very good reason and Della’s stories even have the power to make me cry sometimes. She’s that good!

Stages of Rejection

As I once again approach submission time, I am bracing myself for failure. Not in a woe-is-me, lack of confidence way, rather from a position of realism based on past experience. I thought I’d pull out all the rejection letters I’ve saved from the last four years and take a browse – but I couldn’t. Some are still too painful. So why keep them all, like some tatty love-letters from a failed relationship? I’m not sure. In a way it’s because they validate the time I’ve spent writing novels. They are tangible proof that I have tried, I have worked hard – that I have put myself ‘out there’.

Surely I should have developed a rhino’s skin after all this time? Surely the rejection still doesn’t hurt? For the most part, I can logically deal with disappointment - tell myself that a standard rejection isn’t necessarily a condemnation of my work. And I appreciate the odd personal comment, I grasp at the occasional letter which is worded with encouragement. But now and again I get caught out. And the obsessive, emotional process is usually as follows and I wonder if it’s the same for you?

1) Paranoia – why has the agent not replied yet? My submission must have got lost in the post. Perhaps in my covering letter I didn’t grovel enough – or maybe I sounded arrogant. The agent must be on holiday or she’s ill or at some book fair abroad. Perhaps it was a mistake calling the hero and heroine Gordon and Mandy because if she’s Conservative it won’t make it off her slushpile.

2) Assumption – it’s definitely been rejected. I’ve googled the agent’s name and when she takes someone on she always rings them after two days. I’ve already been waiting two weeks. It’s a done deal. Onto the next sub.

3) Tears – the letter slipped through the post box today. Despite number 2) it is still a shock. Tears and chocolate. More tears, more chocolate. My little boy asks why my eyes are runny. My claws-of-steel cat turns away in disgust.

4) Self-pity – I’m never going to make it as a writer. What’s the point of trying any more? All the hard work I’ve put in has been for nothing. More chocolate. More writerly sighs. Woe is me.

5) Anger – What does she mean, my characters seem flat? That my plot’s going nowhere? My husband disagrees, as does Auntie Nell. Who does she think she is? What does she know?

6) Defiance – I’ll show her and write something even better then I’ll post a copy to her when I get a deal. She’ll be cursing the day she let me go. Ha! And double Ha!

7) Acceptance and Resolve – she was right, I can see that now, the characters are flat and the plot is going nowhere. It’s time to tuck this book firmly under my bed. It’s time to move on and work on my writing skills. It’s time to improve.

8) Gratitude – she did me a favour, if it wasn’t for that rejection letter I’d still be working on that project. My new one is genuinely so much better. I’ll sub it to her when the time comes.

9) Amnesia – I can’t wait to send her my new project. This submission process is so exciting! Printing out my chapters, rushing to the post box every morning… Perhaps this book will be the one!

What's in a Name - by Susie

Morwenna Thistlethwaite.

She’s a real person. I came across her in an artist’s catalogue and instantly wanted to include her name in a novel. Gamine, wistful and floaty – inclined to cheesecloth and batting enormous lashes – she’d be a pastie-baking girl from a vast Cornish mining family and the inn-o-cent object of an evil pirate’s passion. A pirate called…

Rex Frothichops. See, I can’t help it. A writing friend anagrammed her husband’s name and came up with this, my all-time favourite. He’s so …nineteenth century. But wait – I can also see him at the beginning of time, a rock-dinosaur with rabies – T.Rex Frothichops.
Sorry. Getting carried away there.

Names are so more-ish, don’t you find? And a good name – or rather the right name – is often hard to find.
There are many name-researching websites on the net, and I’ve just been a-sampling. There are the baby names sites, where you can choose a name according to its popularity in any given year; sites giving the meanings behind names (did you know that Harry means Army Power? The poor lad was predestined for the job), There’s a site where you can generate a name in any language – I asked for a female name in Esperanto and a male name in Bulgarian (‘My Gott –‘ Valentin Boyko’s voice roughened with desire. ‘Glorinda Katida, vot are you doink to me?’ ) And, best of all, there are sites where you can enter details of your character and a name is randomly generated to suit. I put in: ‘oozing, slimy, disgusting, putrid’ and got ‘Vilescum’. Count Vilescum, of Totterdown Towers, who only comes out at night and spends his days floating ominously in dirty bathwater…

How do you choose your characters’ names? Do they arrive, perfectly formed, in your head or on the page, or do you spend weeks searching for them? How did A.A. Milne come up with Winnie-the-Pooh? Would the book have been as successful if the characters had been called Teddy, Tiger, Young Pig and Whingeing Donkey? How did Nabokov (a name to conjure with itself) come up with Humbert Humbert, not to mention Lolita?

Which brings me to titles (of books, I mean, rather than that of Count Vilescum). Sorry to be Eeyorish about this, but the title of your book – and your own name – will be the first, and probably the only, words of your book that will ever be read. As potential readers scan the rows upon rows of book spines in the library or the bookshop, only a small number of titles will leap out at them. Why those particular titles? On-e-ly Gott (as Valentin Boyko might mutter) vould knows. It’s almost impossible to predict what makes a winning title – but the right one can elevate your book from pedestrian to prize-winning.

Take Gary Leon Hill. He caused a storm in 2006 with his book entitled: People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead: How They Attach Themselves To Unsuspecting Bystanders And What To Do About It. Non-fiction certainly seems to lend itself to eye-catching titles, though I Was Tortured By A Pygmy Love Queen (yes, really) did pretty well too. My favourite, though, for its simple, unarguable succinctness, is Jack Pelicano’s Bombproof Your Horse

So, dear writer, choose your names with care. They could be the making or the breaking of your book. I went to a talk by Patrick Gale recently, who said that his agent only picked up his first novel because of the title: The Aerodynamics of Pork. I wonder if I could come up with something similar for my new one? Whaddya think, Valentin?
Aach – and peegs might fly…’


Getting to know you

How well do you know your main character? Better than you know your best friend? Your partner? Better than you know yourself?
I thought I knew the 13-year-old boy at the heart of my children’s book. But there was a common thread to some of the criticisms I’d received on earlier drafts. The voice isn’t quite convincing; I haven’t got a clear enough picture of him; I’m not sure I cared enough about what happened to him. It was a real worry. I tried to address this through plotting and dialogue, and even changed the whole book from third person to first and then back to third again. But somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew I still wasn’t quite there.
There’s lots of advice to be found on this particular problem. Some people recommend filling out a questionnaire on everything from your character’s family history to their favourite food. I’ve no doubt this approach can be very helpful, but in my case, the answer lay in something much more straightforward.
I wasn’t seeing him properly. Literally, seeing him.
And by that I mean that his appearance was all wrong.
It happened like this. When I first started to put the story together, I was writing it for my then nine-year-old son. I gave my character, Josh, my son Joe’s colouring and hair, just because I knew it would make Joe smile when I read it to him (it did). The story changed many times but Josh’s appearance remained the same.
Then about a week ago, I was at the beginning of a major edit and I had a flash of insight that almost knocked me off my chair. Josh doesn’t really look anything like my son. I suddenly had a powerful mental image of a boy with quite different colouring and within minutes I was frantically scribbling down everything from the basics like hair and eye colour, to the fact that he had the end of his little finger missing following an accident as a toddler.
Life had suddenly been breathed into Josh and he was no longer a vehicle for my story, but a real, three-dimensional boy. It was a great feeling and meant that I was able to fly through my latest edit. At last, I really knew Josh.

I’m fully expecting there to still be a million things wrong with the book. But the moment when he became real to me was quite magical. For me, those moments are what writing fiction is all about.
So if you’re having trouble getting to ‘know’ your main character and you’ve tried some of the other tips, why not spend a few moments picturing them? You may be surprised where it takes you.

Sweating the Big Stuff

“You can’t have a story with a divorcée as heroine in a woman’s magazine story.” So said one of my students on a course I ran a couple of years ago – “Writing Short Stories for Women’s Magazines.” She was adamant about this. Because, you see, that was the case thirty years ago, apparently, when she last read a story in a woman’s magazine.

Women’s magazine stories are cosy, with happy endings. They never threaten the status quo. Everyone gets their just desserts and the hero and heroine will always walk off into the sunset at the end.

Are you following me here, fellow womag writers? Because you must get this drivel in the ear too, from time to time – invariably from those higher up the literary food chain, “proper” authors who write angsty novels about incest and abuse and who believe the only ending worth its salt is one when the heroine throws herself under a train. Or from people who would seriously love to write for the market but whose only point of reference is the Woman’s Own their mothers used to read back in the early 60’s when men were men and women were expected to be grateful for it.

But times have changed. For the women’s magazine market I’ve written – and sold – a story set in a woman’s refuge; the tale of a boy who attempts to desecrate his mother’s grave because he can’t forgive her for dying and one about a woman turning to alcohol as a way out of the guilt she suffers after being caught “in flagrante” with her lover on the morning she hears about the death of her husband – and that’s just in the last six months. I’ve read a story about a transvestite and one about a woman who waits for her lesbian lover to arrive. Not to mention the one about a woman returning home to her wheelchair bound husband after a one-night stand.

Gaynor Davies, fiction editor of “Woman’s Weekly” has said that they’ll publish stories on any theme, as long as it’s sensitively handled. So no graphic sex or violence, but after that, the gloves are off.

It’s a real challenge to write a story that will stay in a reader’s mind for longer than the time it takes for her to read it. And there’ll always be a place for the comic tale – never more so than at times of recession.

But – People’s Friend apart - magazine editors love stories that challenge the modern reader. Never forget we live in a modern world and tether your stories to that fact. That’s not to say they should be depressing, but they should never be bland. The trick is, I guess, to tackle a tricky subject head on. Offer a resolution, yes, but steer it away from “happy ever after”.

Look through the current batch of women’s magazine this month. Take your lead from a story that touches your heart, maybe because it tackles a controversial issue head on or perhaps because it deals with a situation you, personally, would really prefer to leave to someone else to deal with because, frankly, it seems way too challenging for you.

Unpick it to the bare bones then try to work out exactly how the writer has managed to flesh out her story. Remember the old adage – in writing it’s not what’s said, but what is whispered. If it’s a good story you’ll feel satisfied, when you reach the end that the outcome is the right one, not cheated into being stuck with the obvious one.

Then have a go at writing one yourself.

I'm A Celebrity - Get Me A Ghost Writer

I have a pet hate in the world of literature (if you could call it that) and that's celebrity autobiographies. Two celebrities who irk me the most are Kerry Katona and Katie Price. Oh, and Victoria Beckham, Sharon Osbourne, Peter Andre, Charlotte Church, and those footballers - the Rooney boy, Ronaldo and Beckham, all of whom have 'penned' their life stories. I can tolerate Graham Norton, Jools Holland, Richard Hammond, Gordon Ramsay and Gary Rhodes but that's not to say I want to read their life stories.Celebrities get away with so much, and when it comes to getting a book deal, publishers are falling over themselves to offer as many noughts as possible. It's hardly surprising too that they're not written by the celebs themselves: many footballers I'm sure struggle with spelling, let alone the construction of a semi-coherent sentence. It's frustrating when the books are ghost-written, so tell me why should I buy them? I can read Hello magazine and get as good a glimpse into their lives as the autobiography. People often snap up autobiographies as Christmas gifts, and apparently sales of celeb life stories account for 50 per cent of pre-festive books bought (note - isn't Waterstones filled during December with folk who look like they have never even opened a book - you see them at the tills holding their copies of Ashley Cole's autobiography?) Is it because people like to revel in Schadenfreude, secretly hoping that someone else's childhood was worse than their own?

Three I really must flag up are Chris Moyles' first offering The Gospel According to Chris Moyles, plus his Difficult Second Book, and Russell Brand's Booky Wook, all of which were written by the folk themselves. And they're genuinely funny too. Well done Chris and Russell - big literary pats on the back! I also must confess that I plan to read Davina McCall's account of her life 'Being Davina' purely because I like her telly warmth and charm, but I'm disappointed she didn't scribble it herself.

Putting aside all my prejudices this morning in the office (Thursday) I opened Parky's autobiography which was freshly delivered by the book club and read the first few lines - "Every morning when I woke, I could see the pit from my bedroom window.." - yes, it's engaging and it held my attention. So, I read on a little...and a little more....

A list of the worst-selling celebrity autobiographies was published last year in the Telegraph and it included efforts by Alec Baldwin (an astonishing 12 copies sold within the first month), Christopher Biggins with just over 2,000 copies sold and surprisingly Jade not so Goody's Catch a Falling Star selling just under 6000 copies within the crucial few weeks following release. And there are some cringe-worthy titles too which should raise a giggle or two: They Made A Monkee Out Of Me - Davy Jones, David Hasslehoff's Don't Hassle The Hoff and Andy Murray's Hitting Back. There's also Gene Simmon's Kiss And Make Up and perhaps the best of the bad bunch Tori Spelling's 'sTori Telling' (an alarming Amazon search yielded a follow-up called 'Mommyhood' due June 09).

In my worst nightmare, I can picture myself in the library, browsing the shelves only to be confronted by an armed and dangerous shelf, full of celebrity autobiographies - in which case I'll start running and shouting 'You're a celebrity, get out of here!"

Guest Blog by Emma Darwin - Entirely Irrelevant

You don’t have to be a celebrity to get published. What you discover, when you’re having that crucial meeting with your publicist, is that her job is to make every author, however dull and obscure, sound irresistibly fascinating. Blurbs and covers can only do so much, and the chief function of reviews is to provide quotes for the paperback. But introduce the writer as a person – a person with a story – and people get curious. And who are we, as professional story-tellers, to balk at that? So your publicist will order the Chardonnay and interrogate you until you come up with something interesting – a hook, an angle – about yourself.

If you’re a banker writing financial thrillers it’s easy. Ex-SAS writing chicklit? Better still. Even a sensitive dissection of bourgeois life in Dewsbury can grab columns if you’re a professional deep-sea diver from Tierra del Fuego. But what if your only angle is nothing to do with you?

I’m putting off getting to the point because I was brought up not to mention the 2-3% of my genes which I have in common with my great-great-grandfather Charles Darwin. (I know the percentage because my genome was dissected on one of the big biology blogs. Weird feeling.) The Darwin industry has been getting steadily bigger for years and my name is my name, as well as my great-great-grandmother’s: I get asked about it anyway. In the tooth-and-claw battle of the bookshop tables you use what you have, and all I have is Darwin.

I’m sure I’m not the only writer whose chief publicity interest is entirely irrelevant, and I’m not complaining: it’s got me coverage I’d never have got otherwise, particularly in that uneasy time before the book’s out there. And if I’m being interviewed, then fair enough: it’s part of my identity. But in a thirty-word listing, sixteen may be about The Ancestor. And bad reviews are an occupational hazard, but how about one which starts ‘Emma Darwin may have smart genes but she doesn’t deploy them well here’? I’ve been asked many times if I would have got a book contract if I weren’t a Darwin. I hope it’s just ignorance that you don’t have to be a celebrity, but maybe it was meant as an insult: in our don’t-show-off culture, am I showing off to talk – when I’m asked to, like now – about my huge, high-achieving family tree? If I say it’s a double-edged sword, which it is, since it plays sometimes painfully to my own middle-child hangups, am I whingeing?

Now my novels The Mathematics of Love and A Secret Alchemy are out there, there’s more else to talk about, but here comes the Bicentenary. Being freelance, I have a web presence and journalists phone: do I say no, when it gets me and my books out there? And, yes, there’s a reason this post is appearing today, The Birthday. I’ve learnt to use what I can’t help having. But I’d rather be read and known for what I write than for such a tiny bit of what I am.

Emma Darwin is a novelist living in London. Find her website at and her blog at http://emmadarwin.typepad/thisitchofwriting

The Never-ending Quest

So let's suppose you're a member of an online writers' forum, OK? Say you're trying to keep going in the face of daily threads about £50,000 deals. You gamely reply “congratulations” (with three smilies) to every post celebrating the sale of Japanese rights, and if you're particularly saintly you might even muster up a sympathetic response to a discussion titled “Damn, I've only sold 10,000 copies, now what do I do?”

And you find yourself struggling with the conflict between being pleased for others and being utterly stabbed to the heart. You love your online friends, love their writing and can't wait to see their books in print, so it's not jealousy – it's more internalised than that. It's a weight in your heart always dragging downwards and reminding you that for some reason (and no one will tell you what that reason is) you're not good enough.

And then, though you wish no ill to those published writers, you have to try not to get just a tiny bit irritated when they go on and on about how their book is a load of crap. I mean, really - how ungrateful and needy. It's obvious they are just trying to draw attention to themselves and manipulate other people into telling them they're brilliant.

But, you know, having at last managed to get into the surreal situation of having a novel about to be published, I've started to think those authors aren't fishing for compliments – if they're anything like me, they have genuine moments (sometimes very long moments of, like, years) of believing their writing isn't much cop. Sometimes it all seems as though the publishers have made a big mistake, or Jeremy Beadle will pop up at the launch to say it was all a cruel joke. (Except he's dead, so he'd be a zombie, and that would admittedly be quite cool.)

The self-doubt and quest for validation never seem to end. Is it just me, or can other writers never be satisfied? I wouldn't be surprised if Stephen King sits there going: “Hell, I only made three million bucks this week. Everybody hates me. I might as well go work in Taco Bell.”

To start with, I thought just finishing a novel would be enough. That's a great achievement, right? I'd have got further than all those people who think it would be easy to write a book if only they didn't have six hours of telly to squeeze in every evening.

Then I did finish it, and I thought: if I send it out and get some rejections, that'll be an even better achievement. Lots of people are too scared to try. Then I thought if I could just get a personalised rejection, I'd be happy. I just wanted to know one way or the other whether my book had some potential or whether it was the crappiest piece of crap that ever existed in the crap history of the crap world. Then I got the first wonderful 'positive' rejection, but once the excitement had worn off, I knew I would only be happy if I could get a request for the full manuscript ... and so it goes on.

Now I'm on the road to publication and it's an exciting time. I feel as though I've broken through the wall of enigmatic form letters and unanswered emails, and found that there are lots of lovely people and great opportunities on the other side. So I'm resolving to enjoy it all in the present, and not keep hankering after the next tiny bit of validation, whether that's an email from the publisher or a comment on my blog, a few website hits or an improvement in the Amazon ranking. I'm going to try to be a satisfied writer.

I mean, if my book could just manage to sell – I dunno – a hundred copies, that'll be enough. Maybe even some of them to people I've never met. I'd be really happy with that. Honest.
Thank you to Stuart Yeates for his photo of Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge.

Quickfire Questions with... Della Galton

Della Galton sold her first story in 1987. Since then she has sold hundreds of stories and serials here and abroad. She lives with her husband Tony in a 400-year-old cottage and enjoys walking her dogs in the beautiful Dorset countryside.

My first sale was…
A poem to Pony Magazine when I was eight!

My family think my writing is…
All based on them.

The best/worst thing about writing short stories for magazines is…
They’re very short. That’s the best and the worst thing.

Long hand first or computer?

On completing a story I feel…

When I run out of ideas I …
Don’t often run out of ideas to be honest.

Ideas come to me when…
I’m driving, chatting, doing housework, walking the dogs, all the time really.

My biggest tip for new women’s mag writers would be…
Read the magazines constantly.

3 authors – dead or alive I’d like to invite to dinner would be…
Teresa Ashby, Nick Hornby and Daphne du Maurier.

Favourite writing outfit?
Soft fleece and comfy trousers, plus hot water bottle. Our house is freezing.

Favourite writing snack?
Chocolate. Favourite any time snack actually!

Daily Mail or Guardian?
Mail – much better for plot lines!

Corrie or Eastenders?
Corrie – brilliantly written.

Best woman’s magazine story I’ve read during the last three months is…
The Leftover Cat by Teresa Ashby

Della has published two novels - "Passing Shadows" (2006), "Helter Skelter" (2007) and "How To Write and Sell Short Stories" (2008) - all with Accent Press,

Why you have to be two-faced to be a writer

A new year. A new start. Or so I told myself.
Last year, I finished my novel. I edited it to within an inch of its life. I scrutinised every page, every line for excess baggage. I ruthlessly strangled, shot or poisoned my ‘darlings’ – those dearly-beloved phrases or paragraphs that Just Won’t Do in the cold light of day, however much one may secretly admire them. I made sure the timescales worked, that there was enough ‘light and shade’ in the writing, that the plot made sense. I wrote, and re-wrote my synopsis, my hook paragraph, my covering letter to agents. I checked my margins, my headers, my page numbering. I began to send my submissions out.
Time, then, to get on with the new one. And when better than in January, with its whispers of new beginnings, fresh starts?
I stalled.
It’s Second Novel Syndrome, I told myself. It’ll pass as soon as you get into the writing.
But still I stalled.
And then I remembered Janus, the god after whom January is named. God of – among other things – beginnings and endings. A god with two faces: one looking forward into the future, the unknown; the other looking backward over what has been. I think that Janus must be the God of Writers. We need to be two-faced.
The two faces of Janus remind me – since I’m into astrology – of the faces of Jupiter and Saturn. Jupiter – the forward-facing one – is expansive, optimistic, the Great Maximiser. The epitome of recklessness and courageousness, he’s an amalgam of Bob The Builder, Elvis and the NIKE advert:
‘Yes, We Can!’ he hollers. ‘More, More, Gimme More! Just Do It!’
Jupiter is the maker of first drafts.
Picture the severe figure sitting with its back to him. Here is Saturn, gazing sternly and pitilessly over What Has Been. Thin as a pin, he takes sips of water from a plain glass, dabbing at his lips with a fastidious handkerchief. He’s a mixture of Wise Man and Grim Reaper. He’s been there, done that, seen it all.
‘Watch Your Words,’ he whispers. ‘Gain Perspective. Be Objective.’
Saturn is the editor, the reviser, or as Belbin would have it, The Completer Finisher.
Jupiter begins things. Saturn completes them. Jupiter fires up the ideas while Saturn shoots the excess down. Jupiter is all energy and imagination and hope. Saturn is the reality check at the end of the game.
And whilst he doesn’t seem like a laugh a minute at first glance, Saturn is just as necessary as Jupiter, if we are to tread the stony road to publication.
‘Yo - this is the Big One, baby! Oh, yeah. It’s gonna be great –‘ croons Jupiter, as we begin our novel. With him, we grow a book. We express ourselves, pour forth a host of ideas, of what-ifs, of and-ands. Words accumulate into phrases, phrases into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into scenes, scenes into chapters. For first-time writers, the completion of this first draft may appear to be the completion of the whole endeavour. High on this achievement, it’s all too tempting to believe that this is, indeed, it: that the book is complete, ready to boldly go out into the world.
It’s not.
It’s time, instead, to turn our face the other way.
Living with Jupiter is like attending a Bacchanalian party. Excess Rules OK. Growth is Good. Quantity is Quality. Then along comes Saturn with his cold, assessing eye, his objective pragmatism. Compared with Jupiter, Saturn seems miserly, nit-picky, a niggardly task-master who ruthlessly insists on getting value for his money. Every turn of the plot, every character, every word must work for its place in the novel, or die. Saturn is the challenger. Faced with a flight of Jupiterian fancy, Saturn takes aim and fires. Only the very strongest survive the glacial Saturnian process.
Yet Saturn has his own attractions. If Jupiter is the lord of celebration, of over-eating and drinking, of expanding waistlines, Saturn is the cool, exhilarating breath of the New Year resolution to cut down, to sharpen and slim, to pare away the excess and reveal the lithe, sleek body beneath the fat.
Saturn and Jupiter. Each has its time in a writer’s life.
The transitions between them, however, can be problematic, as I’m discovering. A fellow writer puts it beautifully: ‘I'm finding it really difficult to put my writer's cap back on. I find myself scrutinising every word as it goes down and changing it back and forth, unable to make a decision and move forward. It's like being bladder-shy - I just can't go when someone's watching!’
Someone, in this case, is Saturn.
And with spring approaching, I need to turn again: to Jupiter, and his delights. But first I must wave a very firm au revoir to Saturn. Even though his bony fingers are scrabbling at the door, it’s no longer his time. New energy is stirring. New ideas are calling – distantly, faintly – and another voice, a hopeful, passionate, expansive voice is whispering:
‘Yo, this is the Big One, baby…’

Going Public

Writing is, by its nature, a lonely business. There may be the odd freak of nature who can tap happily away on their laptop in a crowded cafe with half a dozen strangers peering gormlessly over their shoulder, but for most of us, quiet and solitude is essential. For me, certainly, it's all part of getting inside the heads of my characters; to "become" them, I have to forget that I have a life outside of them, and create a vacuum for myself. It's a strange, internal process, but one which most of us perform without even thinking about it. There's only one problem: if you manage to get published, you have to start sharing your work with the world. But that's what we want, I hear you cry. Of course. I totally agree. Let thousands of people read my novel, if they so desire (and I hope they do) - in the comfort of their own homes, on the Tube, in the bath, wherever takes their fancy... as long as I don't have to read it to them. 

The awful truth dawned on me a few months ago. In order to help try and shift a few copies of my book, I was going to have to stand up, in front of people - REAL people - and read it out loud. Not the whole thing... that would be madness. In a way, though, I would actually prefer that. At least then my audience would be able to judge the book in its entirety. If they didn't like it, fine - well, not fine, obviously, I'd probably lock them in the room and refuse to let them leave until they had written a four-page essay on their reasons why not, but at least I would know they were making an informed decision. But a mere couple of pages? A couple of pages, chosen almost at random by me, taken totally out of context and declaimed to a load of strangers? Not bloody likely. But of course it was likely. It was unavoidable. I had made my bed, and now I had to lie in it.

I did my first set of readings in November, to various assorted sixth formers as part of their A Level English lessons. As I sat there and read, knees knocking with fright beneath the table, trying and failing not to hate the sound of my own voice, it struck me that this was actually a peculiarly effective form of torture. I wouldn't be surprised if it had already been taken up by some of the murkier militant organisations. Forget putting your victim on the rack - if you really want to make them suffer, get them to pen a few couplets and then read them out loud to the guards. As I stumbled through the pages, I must admit that I wasn't too sure how my words were being received, largely because I could hardly look at my audience. Speaking the sentences I had written, they suddenly seemed cringeably juvenile and inane. It was a disaster. I was a failure. I would never write another word.

At least, that's how I felt during the first lesson. By the fourth, it was a different story. No, I hadn't suddenly become the last of the great orators, but somehow, it all started making sense. This was my book. I had written it, and they were damn well going to listen to it. They weren't pelting me with rotten tomatoes; in fact, mostly they looked quite interested. And afterwards, they crowded round and asked me if it was going to be made into a Hollywood film. OK, I had to say that as yet there were no firm plans on that front, but even so... Overall, I found reading my work aloud to be much like the experience of jumping into a freezing cold lake. Difficult to gear up to, a shock to the system at first - but the more you splash around, insisting that the water is lovely, the more you start to believe it.

Guest Blog by Nik Perring - Being Different

I was asked by the lovely folks here at Strictly Writing to write ‘some-thing a bit different’ for them. And as, over the past few months, they’re not the only ones who’ve called my writing (or me!) a bit different I realised I had my topic. So, this is a little piece about me, and about being different.

I’m a writer. I don’t work normal hours, I’m not on a salary, I don’t have a degree, so I reckon that does make me a little different to others. And it’s not an easy ride. I have the grumpiest, and most demanding, boss in the world, I have to work harder and longer than I’d like to and everything I do is down to me. So I’m inventing work every day. Constantly making things up. Other people would get sacked for that; I get paid. If I’m lucky.

And there’s also the question of what I make up, the work I produce: is that different too? Probably. I don’t work to a brief, I’ve no projects clients have given me. I’m creating something that no-one has asked for and I constantly run the risk that it’s something no-one will want.
So why do I do it?

Well that part, mostly, is easy to explain. Forgetting the financial side of things, writing is interesting. It’s exciting. It’s fun. It’s something that I want to do.
I like diversity. I like things to be interesting, I like to be interested. I like having the opportunity to write about whatever subject I like, whatever interests me, and that, by its nature leads to lots of different things: different genres, different forms, different subjects et al. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes I get it wrong. No, often I get it wrong. But it’s the trying that’s fun, the challenge, the discovery, the finding things out. And of course the joy when it works takes some beating too.

I’ve been asked, many times, why I don’t stick to a particular genre or length (why I write so many different things), and I think my answer is: because I don’t have to. And that’s with no disrespect to anyone who does. I guess there’s a danger than I’m a jack of all trades, not an expert - but it doesn’t feel as though I’m either. I’m not an expert, I’m still learning, and I hope that continues for many a year; but I’m still a writer, and as a writer, it’s up to me what I write about; it’s my responsibility. That’s not to say that I can be flighty, everything has to have a point, it’s not frivolous (well, no more than writing anything can be) but there are so many stories to tell, and all of them are different.

If I’m interested and, in some small way, interesting, then I’m happy. Even if that makes me a little bit different.

And I’ll bet I’m not the only writer who feels like this.

Nik Perring is a talented short story writer, a poet, and author of the children's book 'I Met a Roman Last Night, What Did You Do?'. Read his journal here. Nik is also currently a nominee for the Six of the Month award - please do vote if you enjoy his entry!

BooBoo Anonymous

BUBU really, but what’s a misspelling between friends? The phonetic version is more fun and laughter is so good for one’s well-being. And, talking of things that are or aren’t good for your health, I like a mean glass of Rosé, adore pizza and Belgian chocolates… Yet I’ve noticed, since writing my first novel four years ago, that in certain literary circles I suffer from only one vice worth talking about: Books Under Bed Unpublished.

It’s the proverbial elephant in the room, with its trunk firmly knotted in case it can’t resist the urge, when you finally get that deal, to trumpet to one at all that it’s a joke, you being called a debut novelist - because, in actual fact, you’ve got two or four or more novels under the bed at home. In fact, “Debut Novelist” is a misleading term. Yes, it’s an author making their debut on the public scene, but to the man on the street it implies that the debut is in terms of actually writing a novel as well.

*Stands up in the room* - my name is Samantha Tonge and I’ve got… ahem… more than one book under my bed. And as I approach submission time again with my *mutters a number indiscriminately* unpublished book, I’ve sensed a wee red-horned devil on my shoulder, whispering into my ear:
“Go on! Tell them in your cover letter! Mention the fact that this isn’t your very first novel.”

So, here goes:

Dear Top Agent,

Over the last few years I have learnt and honed my craft. You should have read my first novel! Based on my amazingly interesting life, each chapter was twenty thousand words long! The POV was all over the place and I’d never heard of Show Not Tell. My second book, of course, was better apart from me striving to mimic Sophie Kinsella. Book three received harsh rejection and in retrospect I rushed the second draft. Book four was ahead of its time and book five just wasn’t loved enough. Book six was crossover, book seven too derivative and book eight was dismissed as gimmicky – no agent liked my second person, present tense prose.

I’ve learnt from all these mistakes and my present book really is THE ONE. Everyone says so, including Auntie Hilda and my best friend’s husband’s mum. You must, must read it, so, I’ve enclosed the full manuscript of ‘Too Good to Miss.’ It’s single-spaced, so it looks like a proper book. And as an added incentive to plough through my work, one of the pages is attached to a crisp ten pound note. Enjoy. I’ll ring you next week to let you know if I’m still available for you to take on.

Yours as ever,

Samantha Tonge

BooBoo Anonymous would be proud! But sadly, a cover letter like that would not inspire. So how do I convey the positives about having completed several manuscripts? The determination it displays as well as the ability to learn and take on board harsh critiques? There’s got to be a way of expressing this in a cover letter, without putting an agent off. Anyone any ideas? Come on you other BooBoos, let’s untie that elephant’s trunk!

There is, however, one other perspective we should explore and that’s how heartening it is for a beginner writer to read of some ‘debut’ author’s novel appearing on Waterstone’s shelves. Back in the days when I thought I was going to be the Next Big Thing, these success stories sustained me through periods of self-doubt. By the time I found out for myself how tough it can be it was too late – I’d been well and truly bitten by the writing bug.

Quickfire Questions with... Camilla Bolton - Darley Anderson Agency

Camilla Bolton joined Darley Anderson Agency in August 2007. She is an Associate Agent for Crime and Thriller fiction, having formerly been in newspaper journalism.

Which 3 authors, dead or alive, would you invite to dinner?
Stephen King, Roald Dahl and Maeve Binchy.

Email or phone?
Phone definitely as I’m not the best at spelling or grammar.

Cosy crime – passé or popular?
Good page-turning cosy crime will return, especially with authors like Alexander McCall Smith re-inventing it with a unique twist. So I’d say it’s zoomed past passé and is heading for popularity.

An author should always…Look at every word they write and make sure it’s 100% necessary. Excess words slow pace, stop stories and potentially bore readers.

Favourite desktop snack?

Cliffhanger or reveal-all ending?
Reveal-all ending as I hate not knowing something.

You really must read…
Killing Floor by Lee Child.

Dan Brown is…
A great story teller and huge commercial success.

Daily Mail or The Times?
I’m very ashamed to confess that I rarely buy papers, I always intend to but never quite make it. Sadly I spend my time reading crime and thriller books.

Crime fiction is literary when…
It takes 5 pages to say what a commercial novel could manage in a paragraph. I know, it sounds a bit extreme, but literary crime fiction relies on words as well as plot and consequently the pace will be a lot slower.

Thanks, Camilla! And it's admirable that your only desktop snack is a cup of coffee!

Asking the right questions.

What do these topics have in common?

1. Premature babies
2. Exotic carpets
3. The lifecycle of wolves
4. Native American superstitions
5. Inner workings of fairground carousels
6. Anglo Saxon burial methods

The answer is nothing, but they’re all subjects I’ve had to research for my fiction. Not for the same book, I might add (hmm..maybe that’s where I’ve gone wrong) but they all had two things in common: they were vital to the story and I knew zilch about them. Researching your novel can be a daunting business for the unpublished. First of all, you have to work out how to introduce yourself. Do you start your query with: ‘I’m writing a novel about…’ and hope that’s enough? Or do you give them a full CV? Or, do you just blur the facts a bit, hinting they’ll be seeing you on next year’s Booker shortlist?
You may think this is easier for published writers (was that the sound of hollow laughter?) because you can include a sparkling Amazon link to your last book. But this might bring its own problems. What if they don’t like the cover? What if their sister did it for her book group and ‘didn’t much care for it’?
The good news is that the vast majority of the time, people are hugely flattered that you, someone brave enough to actually write a book, wants some of their specialist knowledge. If you mix in Strictly Writing type circles, you might start imagining everyone is at this novel business. The fact is that most people ‘out there’ are actually quite impressed and interested. I’ve never had anything but positive responses from individuals or organisations I’ve approached for help.

If you are nervous about research, here are some tips:
- Always be professional in your approach. Be clear about the information you’re seeking, so the person in question knows whether they can help or have to re-direct you elsewhere.
- Try a little gentle bribery. ‘Obviously I will give you a mention in the acknowledgements for your helpful input,’ goes down a treat.
- If someone does seem unhelpful, remain polite and gently prompt them to suggest another individual or organisation they think would be more suitable.
- The internet is a goldmine of information, but make sure you get your facts from decent sources. There are lots of dodgy sites masquerading as information portals, so always have a proper look around before you lift a fact, and better still: double check it. After all, you don’t want Mr Nitpicky Nerdypants of Norwich cluttering up your Amazon reviews with his insistence that fish fingers and Smiley Faces didn’t exist in The American Wild West.

If you can get beyond a certain feeling that you’re a fraud, research can be one of the most enjoyable bits of writing fiction. Anyway, I’m off to work on my new novel. It’s about a premature wolf cub in Anglo Saxon Britain, which gets reincarnated as a modern day carpet salesman with a thing for fairgrounds.
I think it has potential, don’t you?