Brought to book with an 'e'

The e-book remained something of an enigma to me, until recently. I decided it was time to ask Santa for one. So I wrote my note and posted it to the North Pole, and made a mental note to leave a glass of milk for the thirsty reindeers for their festive visit to number fifteen. I knew Santa's elves would have to build the blasted contraption, and I could visualise the frustration on their faces as they grappled with this new technology. After all, it's a far cry from the wooden toys that the elves work on over the year.

For the lay person, the e-reader is a digital media equivalent of a conventional printed book. There are a range of models from the Sony reader to the Amazon fact the list is endless. But is the battery-powered device better than the printed word? I say no, some say yes.

My recent purchase of the new Iphone 3GS (note - takes up vital writing time!) revealed there are ample e-book applications which can be downloaded. I went forth into 'cyberphonespace' and obtained 'The Last of the Mohicans' which was free via an application. Most books are available at a cost and the e-book application works through the itunes facility. But while reading, I struggled with eye strain, and I kept having flashbacks involving sitting at my office desk. I felt I was working, rather than relaxing and enjoying reading as a past-time.

My main gripe with the e-reader is the loss of the feel of the actual book. It now becomes a mere image on the screen, and if you are an author, you will undoubtedly feel that you can't hold the 'baby' as such, in the way you would with a book proper. But one positive fact is that voracious readers can bring hundreds of books on holiday with them - just think how much space that would take up in luggage terms if you had the printed versions (100 cases maybe?) Reading in the sun though may be a problem given the glare that will affect the screen.

And what will a future libray look like? A mass of small portals attached to walls where you select what book you want to read (year 2030 perhaps?) and you sit there for hours. Or will a library simply be an online facility?

I've read a lot of reviews of e-readers and one point which seems to get the critics going is that the e-book is 'sexier' than a traditional book. Yes, this is the word they use. Not sure how they reach this conclusion, apart from the fact the electronic device is probably more slimline than the size 18 War and Peace.

Consumers seem to be embracing them and publishers are churning out the content, but I want to see my book printed on paper and I want to be able to hold it. A surprising fact I found out while researching this is that the Gutenberg Project (a mammoth effort to digitalise works, all of which are in the public domain) was formed in 1971! Before I was born. Wow. And I thought the e-book was a ground-breaking 2009 thing!

And the winner is...

Thank you everyone who entered the prize draw to win a copy of Dazed & Aroused by Gavin James Bower. The lucky winner is...


Well done - please email caro_rance (at) hotmail (dot) com with your address, and I'll send the book off to you.

Thank you to Quartet Books for providing the prize. For those who didn't win, don't forget to BUY THE BOOK! You can get it direct from Quartet by clicking here.

You can also visit Gavin's blog at and follow him on Twitter at

The Mullage Machine

You know when you have a formless blob of an idea floating around in your head? It could end up nowhere, but equally, it could end up being a half decent story. It’s a bit like having a lump of dough that needs to prove and bake into something with a purpose. And I don’t compare food and stories lightly, but I still compare them.

Sometimes you need to allow an idea, or a scene, to lurk inside your brain for a while until it takes shape. My friend Alexandra talks about putting it in The Mullage Machine.

I have a very half-baked idea for a new children’s book right now and as always with me at this stage, it’s more about feeling a certain atmosphere than a tangible idea in which A, B and C happen. It’s so half-baked in fact, that I’m worried I have incurred the wrath of the Muse’s bouncers by even mentioning it. [If you’ve never come across the Muse’s bouncers before, believe me, they’re not to be messed with. The Muse wafts about in a diaphanous dress with flowers in her hair but her bouncers have tattoos on their knuckles and steel toecaps in their boots. They’ll escort you off the premises with a few broken limbs and a black eye as soon as look at you. I’ve posted before about how I managed to kill a book by blabbing all over the place about it instead of writing it. I won’t make that mistake again, beyond asking my nearest and dearest questions like, ‘So what would happen if…?’ and ‘Have you ever heard of this…?’

But as long as you keep schtum and don’t leave the idea in the mullage machine for too long, this can be one of the most delicious stages of writing something new. At this point, the book is perfect. Anything could happen and the story could go anywhere. The prose is brilliantly polished and yet natural, the plot will do all the things a plot should do. [Note that I haven’t listed them. That’s because I don’t really know. Answers on a postcard please to the usual address]. The characters will make sparkling dialogue and behave just like living breathing people. Except they’ll be much more interesting than real people.

So if you haven’t touched a keyboard or pen in relation to your current story but have been cranking up the mullage machine instead, don’t worry.
Thinking can sometimes be writing too.

Quickfire Questions with... Suzy Jenvey

Once Suzy Jenvey left school she embarked on a freelance journalistic and writing career which included local radio and newspaper experience, and several published poems and a play performed at the Cockpit Theatre. Her publishing career began as press officer at Jonathan Cape, which progressed to marketing director at Chatto and Windus and at Macdonald Publishers. She then moved into editorial as senior commissioning editor at Simon and Schuster and editorial and publishing director at Faber and Faber and Quercus Books. She became an agent in 2007 at PFD Ltd heading up the children’s book department.

The author I wish we’d ‘discovered’ most is….

Left on a cliffhanger or told all?
Told all. Cliffhanger is just teasing.

You really must read…
The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein. Great for teenagers, great for adults.

My biggest tip for a writer is…
Keep writing. You never know which story or character is going to take off. And a rejection one year is an immediate offer the next.

An author should never…
Copy other stories or styles

My pet hate in a submission package is…
Feedback from the author’s children saying they loved it. It would be unusual for your own child to be an impartial literary critic.

Favourite desktop snack
I’m on the LighterLife diet at the moment, so no snacks; just cheerless food packs.

Best thing about my job is…
The stories

Email or phone?
Email. Always.

The hardest part of my job is…
Rejections of good books

The most common mistake I see is…
Lack of plot. Sometimes people forget that writing is about telling a story.

If I didn’t work in the literary business I would be a…
Riding instructor, or airline pilot.

The perfect book deal is…
In writing. Editors who wax lyrical over a mss, leaving you and the author in hopes of a big offer, can leave you high and dry when their commissioning team don’t agree with them. So the only offers worth getting excited about are the ones that arrive in writing, with all the figures in place

I get most excited by…
Book deals in writing


If you’re still following my NaNo journey, then give yourself a pat on the back.

It has been a bloody hard slog. Normally, I write quickly anyway, but this is something else. The energy required is beyond a working Mum whose other half is currently eating horse and chips in Kiev.

I’ve also noticed a shift in the atmosphere on the NaNo forums.

The end is in sight and the writers are turning their minds to what they should do with their manuscripts.
Strangely, edit like a bastard and submit to an agent seems to not be the popular choice.

Instead there is much talk of self publishing. Companies like Lulu and Blurb are being mentioned as good bets to see your work in print.

I must admit to feeling a little uneasy about recommendations like this. I mean, I have nothing against self publishing per se. It’s a free country and if you fancy getting your work turned into a book, well why the hell not?
What worries me, though, is the idea that this will lead on to something. That if someone, somewhere in the publishing industry happens upon your self -published tome that ‘good things’ will come to pass.
This is not, I have to say, a point of view the self-publishing companies discourage. If I had a pound for every time GP Taylor’s story is trotted out...well it would be bigger than my last advance.

I can’t help but think, though, that this is highly unlikely to be replicated by many authors, particularly if they don’t spend the weeks/months editing that most of us do.

Interestingly, these discussions have been drawn to my attention at the same time that Authonomy have released news that they are now providing an editorial service.

For those of you who don’t know, Authonomy is owned by HarperCollins, and was set up as a forum where would-be-published writers could upload their work with the hopes of being spotted by an editor at the publishing house.

An incredible number of people have taken part in the hope of that all illusive publishing deal.

The whole thing came under criticism for being a cynical way for HC to relieve themselves of their slush pile, and that nothing would ever make it to the book shelves.
To some degree those critics were silenced when Miranda Dickinson was plucked out by my own imprint, Avon, and her first book, Fairytale of New York, was published earlier this month.

I must say I was chatting with the woman who did said plucking at the HC summer party and she was very excited by the whole thing.

So it’s with disappointment in some quarters that Authonomy has now changed its remit and is offering an editorial service. These things don’t come cheap, and again, very rarely result in a work being published.

I sometimes worry that self publishing companies, editorial services, CW classes etc just prey upon aspiring writers, offering hope and taking the cash. I know we have free will to do as we please and no-one is forcing anyone to pay up, but it still makes me uneasy.

That these ideas and solutions are now taking hold in NaNo – lovely, Pollyanna-ish, writing for the fun, NaNo, is, I feel, a shame.



‘Second Novelitis’ is hard.

First, because you’ve left Novel One in edit mode and it takes time to make the transition back to creative mode. Second, because you’ve (probably) faced a whole heap of rejection and lost much of your starry-eyed innocence and hope. Third, because Novel One’s been a steep learning curve in terms of the craft of writing and suddenly you're self-conscious about every idea, every word, every turn of the plot. Is it ‘good’ enough? Is it ‘right?’ It’s hard to focus in on the emerging energy of a new story and new characters when your anxious writerly antennae are swivelling to pick up imaginary critiques from the outside world. I’ve been stuck in this rut for about a year after First Novel. True, life threw in some blows too, which didn’t help. But now, please raise a glass (not an eyebrow) because – taa-daaah!!! I’m writing again.

Two events have brought this into being. The first is NaNoWriMo. In a moment of sanity, I suggested to a friend that we do a private NaNo. She had 40,000 words to edit, I had that much – and much more – to write. We agreed to set daily targets, to call each other each night and to meet once a week. Thanks to this, I’ve got back into the daily habit of writing.

The second is something invaluable that the above friend said, bless her:

The first draft is for you.
The second draft is for your reader

What a liberating thing. I’d been approaching my second novel as if it were not mine, if you see what I mean. I was continually squinting at it, trying to imagine how it might look to the outside world of agents, critiquers, publishers. It didn’t belong to me.

I realised that I needed to take ownership of my writing again. To write the story that pleases my soul, warms my heart. To just go for it and let it be what it wants to become. To be private with it, to hold it close, and allow it to come into being.

Next year, hopefully, I will be moving into the second half of the quote. I will look at my work objectively, editorially, critically. I will think about what the reader wants and I will work on my draft until it satisfies this criterion. But until then, I give myself free rein to write the way I want to.

Remember that Fawlty Towers episode where Basil manages, against all the odds, to win money on a horse? Even though he had to pay a recalcitrant guest for breaking her newly-bought pot? He handed her the money for it, and was left with a large wodge of notes. ‘What’s that?’ she asked. Basil’s face assumed a rare, satisfied smile. ‘This?’ he said, drawing the notes to his lips. ‘This is mine.’

I know how he feels.

Forsooth! Thy Dialogue Doth Not Worke

The issue of accuracy in historical fiction is one I'm often asked about. Does the word 'fiction' give a writer licence to ignore historical detail where the story demands it, or should the story be moulded to fit within the known facts, perhaps with a resulting lack of drama?

When people talk about historical inaccuracy, they are usually thinking of outright anachronisms – medieval serfs scrubbing germs off potatoes, or a Tudor apothecary doing CPR. Often, however, it's not that black and white. If I wrote a full exploration of historical accuracy in fiction it would be somewhat too long for a blog post, so I'm going to concentrate today on dialogue – an aspect where getting it 'right' can actively thwart your chances of creating a novel that works.

Let's take an extreme example, and say your book is set in Roman Britain. Are you seriously going to have your Roman characters talking in Latin? What about your heroic underdogs from various Celtic tribes? The likelihood of a significant number of modern readers been well-versed in each of these languages is slim, to say the least. Historical accuracy, in this instance, would prevent the novel ever reaching an audience. Even in the event of someone desperately wanting to read in Latin and Iceni, they would never get the chance because no publisher in their right mind would take it on.

Less extreme dialogue issues crop up for other historical periods – in my first book, set in 18th-century Chester, I had to consider a regional dialect that even people in other parts of the country at the time wouldn't have understood. An exact rendering of the way people spoke would at best slow down the flow of the story and at worst leave readers wondering what on earth was going on. More generally, using thees and thous, forsooths and do-not-yous – although perhaps perfectly accurate to the time your novel is set – can now look clichéd and forced.

On the other hand, to have characters speaking in an identifiably modern voice is equally unsatisfying (although it can be done successfully for comic effect). Dialogue needs to meet the reader's expectations of what is 'historical' without annoying them or making them flick back to a glossary every few lines.

My way of doing historical dialogue is to let myself go completely overboard in the first draft. I don't care how archaic or regional the dialogue sounds – I put whatever instinctively feels right, and at that stage, no one is going to read it anyway. I just bung in as many unusual words and colourful slang as I feel like – it's fun! Later, during the editing process, I replace many of the obscure terms but keep the sentence structure. This is like excavating the bare bones of the speech patterns, so that the dialogue is accessible but still clearly not of our own time.

On occasions, however, a word not in modern use is the perfect word for a character to use, and in these instances I am all for including it. Usually it's possible to make the meaning clear from the context, and most readers are intelligent enough to work it out. (And if not, well... there's not much you can do for some people!)

Writing historical dialogue is not about being historically correct but about using sleight of hand to create an illusion. You have to find the balance that makes the dialogue unobtrusive, so that it fits in so well – it's just so
obviously how the characters would speak - that it doesn't even excite comment on whether or not it's accurate. And with that, forsooth, 'tis time for me to ende this blogge-poste and let thee wende forth thy merrie waye.

My Top Writing Tips

1) Don’t save good ideas for “later on”. When I first started writing novels, I would hold onto my darlings, such as an original metaphor. But in time I realized, that if get your best bits of inspiration down straightaway, more will follow. So if you imagine a really exciting scene between your MCs, or have thought up a highly relevant, amusing joke, run with them then and there. This is one more way of making sure that every chapter sparkles, not just the first and last and climatic ones. In other words, don’t let the quality of your work wax and wane – aim for it all to be the best it can.

2) Don’t be scared of adverbs. I recently battled over the use of ‘reluctantly’. I told myself it was lazy, that really I should show the character’s feelings about having to go down and answer the door in the middle of doing her homework.
Nessie tossed her pen on the table and went downstairs – um, no, makes her sound ratty.
Nessie sighed and went downstairs – um, not too bad but she’s already done a bit of sighing.
Nessie stuck her fingers in her ears and carried on with her homework – um, no because then the doorbell will have to be run more frantically/she will have to be called down more loudly, and really it’s not that sort of scene.
Reluctantly Nessie left her homework and went downstairs – perfect.

3) Probably not something many of you need telling, but when I first started out I got it into my head that my prose and dialogue had to be written ‘properly’, that I couldn’t possibly put down abbreviations and contemporary references and slang and ungrammatical sentences. I now realize that is not the case at all - especially with my current commerical teen book. I guess what I’m saying is, don’t be afraid to write how people speak - where necessary.

4) Kill the Thesaurus. Honestly – it’s just for occasional use. Like a large Havana cigar, treat it as a luxury, one that can give intense pleasure (when you actually find the right word) but, in excess will kill all your hard work. Keep your vocabulary simple. Avoid the exotic.

5) Vary your word structure, especially if you are writing in the first person, otherwise the word ‘I’ will jump out at the reader. If you read widely, you will no doubt instinctively use a variety of conjunctions and vary the position of your clauses. I was very aware of word structure the first time I wrote a novel in the first person, but have noticed, after consciously tracking and changing the position of the different parts of my sentences, a book later the whole process comes much more naturally. So, some things can be self-taught.

6) Finally, over time you’ll learn which advice to take on board and which to ignore. One of the ones I now pay less attention to concerns the throwing down of the first draft. Yes, I throw mine down, but then I’ll hone a day’s work, edit it and polish, before moving on. Doesn’t mean to say I won’t rewrite it all at the end, it’s simply the way I work and one reason I am failing miserably at Nano! Embrace your own foibles. Do what works for you.

Well, folks, I could go on and on. But I won’t. I’ll open up the floor. What can you teach us all?


Am totally and completely immersed in new project.
Like a new love affair.
Not much room for anything else.
Hence no inspiration for today’s post.
Lay on my bed (Works for Rod?)
Thought of posting first chapter of new WIP?
Then thought against it.
Decided to post a flash fiction piece so you would have something to read.
Something sensible.
And not disjointed like this drivel.
Challenge was to write a story in less than 250 words using the word ‘skinny.’
I love flashing.
(Don’t be rude)
This one is called “Skinny Genes”

I peer around the curtain. Sarah, who should be out there now, giggles and wobbles on her platforms. She’s been on the Veuve. I point her in the right direction and off she trots.

Showtime. My dresser is a rotund motherly figure who looks nothing like my own mother. Her greying hair holds a medley of spare clips on one side. A pin cushion sits on her ample bosom.
‘Have you eaten?’ she asks, her eyes locking mine.
I shrug.
‘You need to eat. Here.’ She offers a sandwich with a creamy mixture that smells fishy. Tuna, sweetcorn and mayo I decide, ignoring the saliva gathering in my mouth. I stare at it, then wait. Tiny little maggots, white wriggly ones appear in the oily filling. I push it away.
‘You’ll get brittle bones and never be able to have children,’ she shakes her head.
I laugh as she pulls the corset stays, tight, like she’s making a point.

My pony walk perfect, I head down the runway. Flashbulbs. My mother smiles from the first row, though not at me. She looks good, her natural skinny genes aided and abetted by Harley Street’s scalpels. The swarovski crystals on my corset glitter like a mirror ball. I am dazzled. As my mind fills with flesh eating maggots, I seek her out again. Mum? Mummy? She stands up as I fall down. The last thing I see before blackout is her white skinny jeans.

Lying on the bed

That’s where I do my thinking. And sometimes going for walks. Lying-on-the-bed-time is what I lack these days. It’s midday on Thursday and I’m “working” at home. This morning I put together some sample reports for a customer and then, to reward myself, I went to lie on the bed. But that only lasted five minutes because I had to get up and rush into the study and write to you.

I’m going to post about me. That’s scary. I normally hide behind attempts at humour – a spoof guide to writing course attendees, or a fake guest blog by a writer’s husband. But it’s the twilight of the year and time for reflection, so perhaps you’ll indulge me.

This has been one of the worst years; probably the worst since my divorce. A tough year for many. Here’s my balance sheet.

2009 Liabilities
Mum died in May.
Have hardly written a word of fiction for months.
My business died slowly (redundancies, and an office lease left hanging round my neck).
The house nearly died too and was infested with builders for twelve weeks.
Have hardly written a word of fiction for months.
I worried incessantly about the economy (my economy).

2009 Assets
Finished second novel.
Zach started rowing at school.
When the business crashed, Jess offered to support me in writing, said she wanted to push me off the clifftop.
I got on the shortlist for the Bridport.
Have two new ideas for next novel.
Business has picked up a bit now.
My eyes are so level, I don’t even care about agent rejections – I smile when I hear the flump of an SAE landing in the hall.

To summarise a year in review: just as I had accepted my fate, resigned myself to a life as a full-time writer, stood ready to take the jump at the edge of that cliff, my work turned around. For the next few months I’m snowed. Isn’t it ironic?

The question is, should I try to write through the next few months (I don’t believe I have the muscle for it) or should I set my writing aside?

That’s why I need to lie on the bed.

When I lie on the bed ideas start flooding.

Nothing Beats Time - Guest Blog by Tania Hershman

Heard the one about leaving something new aside, so you can come back to it with fresh eyes? Sounds sensible. Do I do it? Of course not. But I've learned my lesson.

A little background: the shock of Salt offering to publish my story collection was so great that for two years I hadn't written anything longer than 500 words. I wrote 100 flash stories, which isn't terrible since quite a few were published. But the book came out a year ago and, after being focussed on selling, selling, selling, I missed working on something longer. I write flash stories in one sitting, the process is as “flash” as the product.

Finally, I wrote a 1000-word story. I was excited to have something “long” (yes, you may snicker). I was so in love with the voice and the language, I thought it was great. I gave it to my writing group for critique, they spotted places where more information was needed but didn't give any “big picture” comments. So I thought, wow, that was quick: a finished story, and swiftly dispatched it to several competitions.

Then I wrote another “long” story, a whopping 1400 words, and it felt different. It upset me to write it, and the group were extremely enthusiastic. I knew this one expressed something that had been inside me for a long time. The voice in my head said, “That other one needs work.” I ignored it. I'd sent it out, hadn't I? It was done.

Well, the first story got nowhere in two competitions. The voice said, “Told you. It's missing something.” But I didn't know what. Suddenly I saw that I'd tied the ending in neatly with the beginning, but, actually, there was no middle. And I began to realise that I had set it up to be a certain kind of story and just hadn't delivered. This is something I learned from Robert McKee's excellent guide to screenplay writing, Story. He says: Take Jaws. The setup promises that the shark and the policeman will meet. If they didn't the viewer would feel cheated. He says: Know what kind of story you are telling. If you set something up as a comedy and then it becomes a bloody crime thriller, the viewer will feel disappointed.

I'd set up my story, without knowing it, as a ghost story. But then I hadn't followed through. I'd missed the part with the ghost! I couldn't see this when I wrote it. I thought it was about families. I could only coo over it, rather than stand back and say, Hang on, wait...?

So, I deleted 500 words. I killed my baby. Then I breathed a sigh of relief because I could see clearly that half way through is where I'd let go, where I'd cheated. This week, I started writing again from the half-way point, and it went in an entirely different direction. It's now 1200 words, and not finished. Who knows where it will end up?

I'm embarassed I sent it out, not to mention annoyed about the competition fees. It won't get anywhere. It shouldn't get anywhere. It's not my writing group's fault. It's my fault for being too hasty. Time, ladies and gentlemen. Nothing beats it. Leave it in that proverbial drawer, if only for a few weeks or months, and you – and your bank account - will be very glad you did.

Tania Hershman ( is a former science journalist now living in Bristol after spending 15 years in Jerusalem, Israel. Commended by the judges of the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers, her short story collection, The White Road and Other Stories (, is published by Salt. Her short stories have been published in print and online and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Tania is Grand Prize winner of the Binnacle's 2009 Ultra Short Competition and European regional winner of the 2008 Commonwealth Broadcasting Association's short story competition. She is the founder and editor of The Short Review, (, a site dedicated to reviewing short story collections. Tania blogs at TaniaWrites (

Salt Publishing would like to offer Strictly Writing readers a special 30% discount off Tania's book. If interested, go to this page: Then just enter in the discount code GM18py7n.

A not-so silent scream

I know you will be hardly able to contain yourself’s another instalment from the coal face of NaNoWriMo. What more is there left to say, I hear you cry. It’s a fair point, well made.

I digress, but how on earth do those daily bloggers do it?
I mean I like being part of the Strictly crew and posting every couple of weeks on a subject that I’m interested in, and hopefully, others will find interesting too.
But blogging every two minutes? What do they talk about? The state of the nation? The state of their cupboards?
Either way, I’m not convinced anyone wants to read what I’ve got to say more frequently than they empty their dishwasher.
Belle Du Jour, may be the obvious exception to the rule, but for most of us, life just aint that titillating.

Anyhow, back to NaNo.
All was going well: word count on track, plot skipping along, structure holding up.

Then bam.

This week has been hit with a classic case of life getting in the way of art.
Of course, for most of us writers, this is part and parcel of the life. A contracted novel takes me a year and during those long twelve months any number of catastrophes happen that suck me away from my desk. What I normally do is make up the hours later. Like a civil servant on flexi-time, I operate a system of borrowing and pay back. True, this often requires a 24/7 commitment close to dead line, but I factor that in.

The trouble with writing, or attempting to write, a novel in a month, is that you’re already flat out with no room for manoeuvre. Buying and selling time in these circumstances is a bit like carbon trading – a great idea in principle, but we’ll still end up in the shit.

You can imagine, then, the nightmare of waking up with a stinking head cold mid week. No chance of sipping Lemsip and surfing the information on Swine Flu. Instead, shoulder to the grind stone, with a chapter to knock out. Thank God, that by Friday, the mists were clearing and I could sweep away the carpet of snotty tissues that had amassed at my feet.

By this point I was way behind, but was lulled into a false sense of security by the fact that I had the weekend ahead of me. I could, I told myself, make up the difference.

Then tragedy struck. I came downstairs and found a plethora of email in my box. Among them, a witty string of mails from the Strictly crew about a certain attractive actor. Inappropriate things were bandied about and, me being me, I couldn’t resist sending a response that I could not repeat here. Suffice it to say, it contained the words ‘dirty’, ‘vampire’ and ‘bite me’.

All a terrific hoot until I checked my sent box and discovered I had mailed it, not to the guys on Strictly, but to the parents of my son’s under 11s football squad.

I am so mortified I have spent the weekend, not writing, but alternately squirming and drinking.
The match on Sunday was cancelled, apparently due to the rain, but my mind is racing...
Today I must get back on track. I must write like the wind. And I must try not to send my children’s Headmaster a photograph of myself maked.

Quickfire Questions with... Gavin James Bower. PLUS Prize Draw!

While interning at Dazed & Confused magazine after completing his History degree in 2004, Gavin James Bower was asked to model for the upcoming issue and went on to join modelling agencies in London, Paris and Milan.

His first novel, Dazed & Aroused, set in the bleak
and shallow world of modelling, was published by Quartet Books in July 2009. Gavin blogs at

PRIZE DRAW! Quartet Books have kindly sent us a copy of Dazed & Aroused to give away to one lucky reader. All you have to do to be in with a chance to win is leave a comment on this post. As usual, Strictly Writers aren't eligible for the prize. We'll announce the winner on Saturday 28 November. If that seems like a long wait, you could always go and BUY THE BOOK NOW.

The first story/poem I remember writing was ...
a ‘polemic’ about Sex and the City; specifically, on its ‘man-hating-ness’. I do like the show, though.

My family think my writing is ...
something to be proud of – especially my parents.

The best thing about writing novels is ...
telling people I write novels.

The worst thing about writing novels is
...the whole ‘performance anxiety’ thing. And the shit money. If I had to pick one, I’d pick the shit money.

Longhand first or computer? ...
‘I’m a PC.’

When I run out of ideas I ...
have no idea.

The most frequent question/comment I get about my book is...
‘how long did it take you to write it?’ – but I don’t know whether that’s a ‘good thing’ or not.

My advice to new writers would be
...stop trying to be a writer and just write.

Three authors (dead or alive) I'd like to invite to dinner are ...
Bret Easton Ellis, Karl Marx and Katie Price. I think that would be ‘interesting’.

My favourite writing clothes are ...
non-existent because I write nude. Ok I don’t, because that’s impossible. I actually write in anything ‘comfy’.

My favourite writing snack is ...
black coffee and a Daim bar.

The best book I've read recently is
...the draft of my next one.

When your job gets in the way...

I'm proud to say that my day job gets in the way of what I love doing most - novel-writing. There, I've said it to the entire world - it's a thorn in my side! How I envy people who can get up in the morning and not care about what surprises the company has in store, those who can go to sleep without worrying how he or she will ever tackle the following day's work. And how I envy people who can just get up and switch on their own computer in their own comfortable office and pick up from chapter 12.

I've been especially irked these past two weeks as it's National Novel Writing Month which you will be well aware of. Gah! When I'm sitting at my desk strewn with shorthand notes and post-its, and being constantly interrupted by Joe Public, I grow insanely jealous of the writers who have hit 1431 words by 10am. I've managed to get around 3,000 words written since November 1.

But I'd be lying if I said my journalism job was a waste of time. You see, ALL my novels and short stories are based on real life events. Not events as a whole, but small events within events: a kind of microcosm. From 'A River To Cross', set in North Korea, to 'Cake' (the Victoria Sponge murder!) they're all partly true to life. Even 'Cake' started out after I read an article about a woman losing in a Victoria Sponge contest. But I took this character to the extreme and made her become a cold-blooded murderer, and instead of just taking it on the chin, like the lady in the article did, MC Muriel (who kindly guest-blogged for us here!) seeks revenge. She won't rest on her laurels until she achieves maximum satisfaction. The factual stories I encounter every day give me fodder to use in novels. On the way back from a story, I often think how this would pan out into a novel. Maybe it's a comment someone has made, or something I've overheard? And the Dictaphone is handy too - I can talk to it while driving!

If you open the papers, there's always a story that can be worked on, from the bridge results in the local papers, to a global story like Madeleine McCann. I just don't understand when people say 'I can't get inspiration.' Of course you can - go and look out the window. Open the paper and look at a random photograph. Even leaf through Ok! magazine. It's another way of making sure your story is original and stands out among the other submissions.

So if your day job gets in the way, use it to your advantage, like I do. Make the most of what you've got until you don't need it anymore. Wink, wink.

Pic of office block in New York, taken by myself.

Agents Do Not Breathe Fire! by Guest Blog Winner - Catherine Hughes

Although writing has always been a big part of my life - my song lyrics were legendary at school! - it has only been quite recently that I’ve started writing novels. Knowing that I would need to amass significant knowledge about the publishing industry, I read - all around the internet and beyond - about how to get an agent.

Agents, I discovered, were tricky, difficult characters with exacting standards. Heaven forbid that there should be a typographical error in your submission, or that your query letter (or email) should be too informal or, indeed, too formal. Don’t ask questions; don’t chase manuscripts unless a significant portion of time has passed; revere and venerate agents, and don’t expect them to be nice to you. They don’t have time.

The thought of submitting my first attempt at a proper novel was, to say the very least, daunting in the extreme. But, being of the ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ mindset, I sent out a stack of submissions.

Most of the fifteen agents I queried sent me standard form rejections. One did not reply at all and still hasn’t. But, to my surprise, one or two of the agents I sent my work to responded in a friendly, helpful manner. One chatted to me using email one evening, checking out my query as we ‘spoke’, and one even requested a full, seeing potential in my work even though my query was neither as flawless nor as confident as it ought to have been.

Because, as it turns out, agents really aren’t these distant, heartless, pernickety types at all. OK, well maybe some of them might be, but I’ve had contact with quite a few now and it seems to me that the majority are pleasant people doing difficult, time-consuming, and often demanding work.

My second novel is a love affair, in that I am in love with it to an extent that wasn’t true of my first. And, when I sent it out to agents (some of whom had seen the first novel and some of whom had not) my hopes were high. Sadly, it did not (although I had two requests for full manuscripts this time) garner any offers of representation, but several agents took the time to send me personal, encouraging responses. One in particular urged me not to give up, telling me that I ‘can definitely write’ a phrase that is now etched on my heart forever. I wasn’t suitable for her list, but she took the time to communicate to me that I would, in all probability, be a good match for another agent, and to keep trying.

I’m not saying that you can be slapdash about your queries, or that they should be anything less than the very pinnacle of your efforts. But my experiences have taught me that most agents are like me - clever, positive people who love books and love writing.
Not fire-breathing dragons waiting for the slightest excuse to toast your work.

Catherine Hughes is a thirty-nine-year-old web copywriter who lives in wild and windy Wales, with her four children, husband and three cats. She is the author of two as-yet-unpublished YA SF novels and is currently working on a fantasy trilogy that attempts to explain our rich lore of myth and magic. Despite having a degree in Law, she is really a very nice person, who blogs at on the theme of making small changes each day towards a better life .
Well done, Catherine, great post! You should receive your prize soon!

In the spotlight

I’m a very recent convert to the X factor. We only started watching it as a family because our ten-year-old convinced us he would be a social pariah at school if he wasn’t able to confidently discuss who is in and who left (weeping) over the weekend. I liked to think I was a bit take-it-or-leave-it. But that all changed when Lucie Jones got voted off on Sunday. I finally understood Simon Cowell’s Machiavellian reputation and very much wanted to throw shoes at the telly.
Now there isn’t a huge amount in common between standing on a stage, singing overwrought pop songs, and being a sensitive, shy flower who likes to write stories, but it certainly isn’t without parallels. Whenever you show your work to another person, let alone stick it in an envelope and send it off to an agent or publisher, you’re offering up something from deep inside yourself. It’s like saying, ‘Here is a little part of me, so be nice,’ [I appreciate WB Yeats put it better]. And it can’t be a dissimilar cocktail of resentment, disbelief and hurt to hear someone say, ‘Sorry, love, I just don’t think you’ve got what it takes to go the whole way’ as, ‘we didn’t feel sufficiently inspired by your work to offer you representation.’ Although I have to admit that it’s nicer not having your writing rejections witnessed by millions of people.
Or having to take advice about music from Louis Walsh.
But amidst the disappointment, there is something strangely comforting about seeing the only singer you really rated in the competition being voted off. There really is, it seems, nowt queer as folk. So when an agent says, ‘This was good but it just wasn’t for me,’ it isn’t always code for, ‘It’s rubbish and I hate you, you talentless loser.’ Sometimes, it really was good.It just wasn’t to their taste.
• On the subject of the X Factor, check out YA writer Emily Gale’s brilliant new novel, Girl Aloud, in which tone deaf teenager Kass Kennedy is unwittingly entered for the competition by her manically up-and-down dad.

Mr Motivator

As I recently posted, I have taken the plunge and joined up to National Novel Writing Month aka NaNoWriMo.

Checking out the forums on NaNo it’s clear that there are as many motivations for taking part as there are differing types of writer. I had assumed that the place would be wall to wall wannabe authors, desperate to churn out a publishable novel in the allotted time scale of one month.
I was wrong.

A lot of people are doing it simply for the fun and the challenge. They know they probably won’t end up with a decent book at the finishing line but they don’t care. They love the camaraderie and the community. A bit like the fun runners in a Marathon. It’s all about taking part. Getting to the finish line.

Many others are writing something fairly autobiographical, a memoir, or a story based on their own experiences. Getting it all down on paper is a therapy of sorts. I don’t really get this. I’m from oop north where we don’t have ‘ishoos’, but if those writers are helped along the way, then good on ‘em.

And there are, to my surprise, quite a few like me. Writers who are already published and have had some sort of ‘success’. Some of these authors want to kick start their next book, some are changing genres. A lot are, like me, on a vacation from their usual writing business and enjoying the freedom of a month writing anything they fancy.

Strange then, that given the liberty, I have gone and started another thriller. I really didn’t think I would. I saw myself doing something completely out of my comfort zone, experimental even. The market be damned.

I toyed with something dark and literary, all psychological musings and little plot. But it bored me before I even got underway.
Then I fancied a children’s book. Something my own kids would enjoy reading. But the ideas just didn’t flow.
As the first day came and the whistle blew I knew I had to make up my mind fast and I jumped at an idea that’s been niggling me for ages. A political thriller. All conspiracy and terrorist plans. Wonderfully overblown ideas and canvas.
I guess you can take the girl out of the murder and mayhem, but you can’t take the murder and mayhem out of the girl. If I’ve learned nothing else, it’s that this genre is my natural home.

To be fair, though, what I’m writing is still very different.
My main character is a man, which is new for me. And proving hard, I can tell you. And I’m writing him in first person – not done that before for an MC.
Also, and this is very new, I simply haven’t had time to draw up a detailed plan. I know the bare bones of what will happen but it’s all so sketchy. Twice now I have come unstuck because there simply isn’t time to sit and think the problem through. Instead I have taken a committee approach and asked for plot help and setting help. Both, have actually been fun and productive with tons of suggestions flying my way. How cool is that?

So fat I’m on track with my word count and enjoying myself. What will happen this week, who can say.
I’ll keep you posted.

Fantasy Dragons And...

I often spend idle moments imagining that I’ve invented something really useful that’s got potential to change people’s lives. What I’d give to be the guy who came up with the idea for the vacuum cleaner or even 'post it' notes or the universal phone charger that’s on its way soon. (Really – it’s coming…You can soon dump that drawer load of useless phone chargers). This thought process led me to think about what I’d do -what I’d say - if I had to give a ‘Dragons Den’ type pitch of my novel, rather than submit to agents in the normal manner. Immediately I put together a fantasy five top agents. Can't say who they were, but two men and three women prevailed and the following fantasy will now feature in my top ten. (Easily pleased on the fantasy front, I am)

Me: “Good morning. (Nervous, rather twitchy smile) My name is Fionnuala and I’m a writer. (Alcoholic? No. Wrong show) I’m here this morning to pitch my latest novel ‘Plumb Crazy’. (I breathe, try and make eye contact with each of them. They look like they wish I’d disappear, as I begin a ‘blurby’ pitch)
‘Plumb Crazy’ is a story of love, loss and the healing power of friendship. 97000 words, it's told from the point of view of Samantha Roubicek who, following redundancy from advertising, has retrained to be a plumber - a job she loves. Her life takes a turn for the worst when she’s suddenly blindsided by recurring flashbacks of the accident that killed her mother two decades ago, an event witnessed by Sam aged ten. As Sam unravels, she falls for a client, falls out with her best friend and cheats on her policeman boyfriend. She finds herself unable to move forward, reluctant to re-visit her past – her life resembles a blocked u-bend. (I like this line, so I risk eye contact. One of the women is scowling. Crap. She’s heard all this before. Double crap.)

Can a much needed break in France with friends help? Will a new work contract on the 2012 Olympic site provide the security she secretly longs for? And will Sam be strong enough to hold her family together when her ex, newly in charge of cold case reviews, reveals the identity of her mother’s killer?”

(I smile more confidently than I feel) “Has anyone any questions?”

Lady No 1: “Where do you see your book fitting? Which genre and why?”

Me: “Commercial women’s fiction. It’s chick lit with issues – a la Marian Keyes.” (Crap!!! Did I say that out loud? Did I actually compare myself to the Queen of Keyes out loud to a dragon!! She is smiling back now. I think it's pity.)

Man No 1: “Chick Lit has died a death. What makes you think you can resurrect it?

Me: (I want to make a quip about Lazarus but wisely decide against it) “Women still buy the majority of books that are sold. Most women still want to buy books that are written for women, by women covering issues dealt with daily by women. Give a woman interesting characters she cares about and she will want to read on and on, and of course buy the author’s next book.” (I’m pleased with that last bit. I want them to know I’m not a one trick pony. Man number one is sighing aloud so I throw a few facts and figures at him from The Bookseller. He looks bored. Who invited him? )

Lady No 2: “Tell me what’s unique about your manuscript?”

Me: “My main character is a young woman living in East London. Having been through the glamorous world of advertising she decided to re-train in a trade normally dominated by men – interesting, considering her character is a committed commitment phobe in her relationships. (She’s nodding. Yay!) This plus the background of her working on the 2012 Olympic site, I think makes her quirky and different.”

Man No 2: “What experience do you have in the world of writing?”

Me: (I can feel a hot flush travel up my neck and fill every facial capillary I own. This is the one I’d been dreading. I don’t have a ‘Writer’s CV’ I’ve been published on ezines but they’re not going to be impressed. I’m not a journalist, I haven’t ‘done an anything’ in creative writing. Crapology.)
“I’ve been writing for years, learning, honing the craft. I’m a member of many online writers groups and I blog personally and as a member of the Strictly Writing team.”

Lady No 3: “Yet you compare yourself to Marian Keyes?”

Me: (I'm sure I just heard a snigger. No option but to brave this one out) “Er, yes. Even Marian Keyes was just Marian Keyes, a wannabe writer, when she’d written Watermelon. (Oh dear. She’s just snorted aloud. I think I’ve lost her. In the words of Deborah Meaden – ‘she’s out’.)
“I guess what I’m trying to say is, I write character driven fiction. Like Marian Keyes, I write about characters I believe women will care about, empathise with. I try and do this well within the structure of an interesting plot. Plumb Crazy, whilst primarily dealing with Sam’s unravelling also has the story of Sam’s mother’s unsolved hit and run as a core thread throughout the book. Unlike Marian Keyes, I’m here because I need an agent to read, love and ultimately sell my work. (She’s back! She’s nodding! She’s not out!)

A voice: “Well, I don’t know about my fellow dragons but I’d like to read your manuscript.”

See that’s the great thing about fantasy scenes. We can control them. Believable or not, I opted to end this scene with a dragon, any dragon, butting in to reveal they thought the idea of me being the next MK was in fact a possibility??!!** Ah happy days. They're the best, these moments we have alone in our heads!

Now back to Nano and the newest WIP, one I’ve decided to have a little fun with. Because of the route this morning has already taken, I've also decided this next scene in chapter two will continue the fantasy theme - though this one involves black lace and a married couple, though not to each other...

Writing is easy

After churning out a draft, all I have to do is take a quick whiz through, looking for the following . . .

Flat prose
Is there specific detail? What type of knife was it? But the detail needs to be relevant, i.e revealing of character.

Sensory imprecision
Have I used my eyes, ears, fingers, nose and tongue against the concrete? All of the senses.

Is that Bellow-like list of juicy, stimulating, delightful adjectives justified? Should I shun the adverb? Must I delete that florid passage?

Sickening pet words
Have I allowed those sickening repeats? For me it's moment, moment, moment (and sickening, sickening, sickening). And a whole lexicon of others in a sickening word document for searching.

Character motive
Would she really say that? Why doesn't he simply call the police? Is she just doing that to help me out of a plot problem?

Why do I show that and tell that? Mostly show. Have I shown the key action?

Dialogue content
Does it have conflict? Does it have subtext? 'You're looking nicely dressed today.' Does it reveal character? Never the hideous info dump - just saying it to let the reader know.

Dialogue style
Is it abbreviated and truncated like speech? Do different characters have different vocal patterns?

Word music
Can I hear the rhythm and flow of the words. Read it aloud.

What is the order of revelation of the story. Does it hold the reader? Mystery = what happened? Suspense = what's going to happen?

Authorial voice
Can you bear to keep your nose out of it? (I can’t). At least try to put it into the character.

How does the time pass? Do I skip the right things? Does it have to be linear?

Is the setting another boring pub? Does the setting reflect or affect the characters or the action? Pathetic Fallacy.

Is this someone the reader will want to spend hours to discover? – does the reader give a shit what happens to him?

Emotional honesty
Does this cut deep? What am I avoiding? What should I really be writing about?

Metaphor and metonym – are they fresh? Do they serve a purpose beyond showing off? Do they defamiliarise or make tangible the otherwise ineffable?

Did I give cliché a wide berth? Also stock phrases (they're harder to spot). Have I fallen into elegant variation? (Don’t travel too far the alternative route!)

Readers’ rights
Do I tell them what they already know or can guess? Do I withhold information without good reason or for too long, especially in POV1.

The obvious
"Do you understand what he is saying to you?" (Buck Mulligan) You don’t have to spell it out straight away – make the buggers work. Jose Saramago – telling the reader things that are obviously untrue – a letter Richard Reis would never open.

Would she really think of her own leg as shapely?

Is it unique to the setting or the character, not just taking another drag on a cigarette. What does it reveal?

Passive constructions
Was there too much was? Can I make the construction active. There were trees along the roadside - trees stood guard along the road.

Categories of noun
Are they too abstract? According to John Braine, there are three categories of word: Freedom (bad), animal (fairly bad), dog (good), although labrador would presumably be better.

What happened to that minor character I introduced? Knead them back into the dough later as subplots that resolve before the main story.

Break any and all of the rules, so long as you know them. Anything goes, so long as it's deliberate. Not necessarily deliberate at the time of shitty first drafting, but consciously approved by the author at some point.

I'm sure you can think of a hundred others that I miss out when I'm editing. It's also worth saying, before someone makes the point, that the deconstruction is only for the blog. I'm striving for the stage when I simply read and know, no longer in need of lessons, intuitively taking account of everything in the world.

"Are you a bit crap?" Guest Blog by Nicola Morgan

One of my blog-readers recently emailed me a sorry story of struggle to become published and it included this question: "Do you think sometimes a writer just has to admit they are a bit crap, and give up?"

Now, as someone who struggled for 21 years to hook a publisher - and “struggled” does not properly describe the grim tale of my shattered soul and shrinking self-esteem - I could be the person to answer this.

I could be glib and answer in either of two simple ways:

1. Yes. (But not you, of course, because you’re marvellous.)
2. No. (Crap gets published: you just need to find a way to get your crap published.)

But there are two main things at the heart of the question:

1. Can a not-good-enough writer become good enough to be published?
2. Can we know - and if so, how? - whether we’re good enough and therefore can we reach the point of saying, “Yes, I’m a bit crap; I’m not going to get better; so I’ll give up.”

My answer to the first would be: yes, within reason. Depends what’s wrong. You can become better (isn’t that what we should all be doing anyway?) but if you don’t have the initial base of some kind of talent or at least very-workpersonlike skills and an intuition about what word should follow the previous word, you can’t be a writer. Someone said to me once, “Anyone can learn to be a singer - we all have vocal chords.” No, actually: anyone with vocal chords can perhaps learn to sing, but not become a singer. I can sing a tune but no one’s ever going to pay to listen. Trust me.

The second question is the important one, though, isn’t it? How can we know whether we are good enough? While struggling to get published, how can we know when to give up? I eventually succeeded after 21 years of failure, so, with hindsight, I must have been right not to give up. But, apart from hindsight, why was I right to keep going?

I remember often thinking, “What if I never get published? Will I wish I’d given up and saved the heartache?” The answer was always, “No. I write because I have to. It’s what I do. One day, I will get published. Nothing else is thinkable.”

I was right, but I could have been wrong. I could still be simmering with rage and poisoned by murderous jealousy every time I heard of another debut author getting the break I thought I deserved.

Thing is, out there are countless aspiring writers who aren’t good enough, who really won’t make it, and who for their own peace and health should give up. Who are, in the words of my blog-reader, “a bit crap”.

My answer to all aspiring writers is simple: if you can give up, give up. If you can’t, you have the heart of a writer. So write. You shouldn’t have a choice. Let your readers judge whether you’re a bit crap.

© 2009 Nicola Morgan
Nicola is the author of c 90 books and is said crabbit old bat of the wonderfully addictive Help! I Need A Publisher! blog. She is about to launch her own literary consultancy, Pen2Publication.

Who are you?

What do you call yourself?

I mean, here on Strictly we’ve already said that if you write - whether for profit or pleasure or to get your own back on that bitch who stole your boyfriend back in 197 – blah! (writers and elephants have long memories!) - then a writer is what you are.

But are you a poet, a children’s writer, a crime writer, a novelist of lit fic, chick lit or would you, like me, rather not nit pick? A writer is a writer is a writer. Throw the word “genre” to the critics, and leave them to fight it out between them.

Deciding which genre to write in is a bit like putting the cart before the horse. When I took my first tentative steps at writing a story, all I wanted was to write something that pleased first myself, then my teacher, then the rest of my writing class. So I wanted to create something to capture their imaginations, with neat dialogue, rollicking humour, great characters and – which is a thing I’ve chased ever since – heart. Not the slushy, mushy stuff, but the little nugget of truth that emerges when you’ve read to the end and that points up the world from a different angle. A work in progress, that one.

If we attend beginners’ writing classes then we do tend to be encouraged towards the short story, which I was. And we do tend to be encouraged to write for adults, which again applied to me. But then I joined another group where the task was to write something longer on the theme of “a secret”. “After Harriet” became my first novel – though more properly it would be described as a novella, as I guess it was only about 50,000 words in length.

Maybe because of that fact, and also because it was a “coming of age” story, about a 17 year old girl who blames herself for her sister’s death and the subsequent break up of her parents’ marriage it came to be seen as a young adult novel and I came to be seen as a writer for young adults. Although by the time I’d bagged an agent I’d already been writing short stories for women’s magazines for quite a while.

Did I think, when I started “After Harriet” that I was writing for teenagers? I don’t think the thought ever crossed my mind. I was writing a story I wanted to tell and it just so happened that the main character was 17. I went on to write two more novels for young adults but I don’t think in either case that I put the audience before the story.

Having got into writing through the women’s magazine market I was already well-trained in avoiding bad language – in fact I probably got away with more bad language in the YA novels than I ever would when writing a woman’s magazine story. And I’d learned about starting the story immediately and introducing plenty of drama and tension early on from writing stories as short as 1200 words.

Even the themes were similar – guilt, jealousy, love, fear, suspicion, lack of confidence, triumph and disaster - all the usual suspects and all within the context of the family or friendship group.

I tried to avoid teenage slang, knowing how quickly it dates, but the kind of stories women’s mags take often tend towards the colloquial and chatty, with lots of dialogue and very little in the way of overlong description and here again was something I could transport from one genre to another.

I no longer write for teenagers. Though that’s not to say I never will. I don’t write novels either, but maybe I will one day, when the kids are finally off my hands for good and making their own living. (I don’t think I could afford to write a novel right now!) Nowadays I write stories and serials, but when people ask me what sort of stories, it’s impossible to answer. Romance? Yes, sometimes. Comedy? Definitely. Family drama? Tick. One day I found myself writing a crime story. Me! Who is total rubbish at plotting and could never guess whodunit in a Poirot no matter how many clues were laid down. Since that first foray into crime I’ve lost count how many I’ve written in serial or story form. I’ve even ventured into sci-fi with a bit of time travel.

Many writers feel that the genre chooses them and not the other way round, but I do wonder if occasionally we are kidding ourselves. I wrote short stories initially because I didn’t have great chunks of time and the length suited me. I don’t write novels for adults because I only tend to read literary ones and since I couldn’t write one as good as any my favourite authors have written then I’d rather not enter the race. Similarly I don’t write poetry because I am too scared.

But it’s good to stick your toe into the genre pool and try something different. You never know, you might discover that all this time you’ve been dutifully writing your literary novel and suddenly you discover your real talent lies in writing scripts, or graphic novels or historical fiction.

The world of words can be a big, scary one. But writers are in charge of their own destinies. Maybe we should all stop being intimidated by the genre word, step out of our comfort zones and show it who’s boss.

Now, to that screenplay I’ve been contemplating. Scene 1. A dark and stormy night…..

Our Top Writing Reference Books

Below are our top writing reference books that you can refer to if you're hoping to learn a bit more about the craft or how to submit work, or just to find some inspiration.

It would be great if you had any books to recommend yourselves, in the comments section!

ROD: How Fiction Works by James Wood isn't a manual for writers, so you won't find all the stock appeals to "show don't tell" or "avoid adverbs". Instead it's a searching anatomy of literature by one of the most insightful critics in the business. It follows the tradition of E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel and Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel, but I found it more readable and more fun and more insightful than either of those. The discussion of the case for and against realism was the part that struck me most. Let James Wood guide you towards a deeper understanding of what you are trying to do when you sit down to write.

CAROLINE R: On Writing by Stephen King. Although I've read and enjoyed a few of King's books, I wouldn't consider myself a big fan. On Writing, however, is a hugely enjoyable read for which you don't need any prior knowledge of King's work. The book's autobiographical sections are very funny, and the writing advice is given in an amusingly no-nonsense tone. The advice itself is nothing earth-shattering – it's the kind of stuff you can easily find on the internet – but King is not out to boss anyone around. He says what works for him and the reader can take it or leave it – a refreshingly non-patronising book.

GERALDINE: Becoming A Writer. Way back in 1934 Dorothea Brande showed us the way. Brande realised the importance of psychology in the writer's make up and taught me, for one, the importance of separating my sensitive writerly self from my editing self which would sooner tell me I'm rubbish than praise me. She also came up with the idea of morning pages way before any other author of "How-To-Write" manuals. DB is the Elizabeth David of creative writing. Everyone else is just an imitator.

CAROLINE G: Julia Cameron: The Right to Write
I’d never heard of Cameron’s more famous book, The Artist’s Way, when I came across this title, which focuses on writing rather than other art forms. Some of Cameron’s language is a little happy clappy for my taste but I will always be grateful to her for introducing me to the idea of ‘Morning Pages’, where you write any old rubbish you feel like every day without fail. I don’t manage to do it every day and I don’t do it in the morning, but I have found my unselfconscious private witterings to be hugely therapeutic. She also suggests taking time out to do things that inspire you creatively - a great way to recharge those batteries.

SUSIE: You may never have heard of my favourite - I only came across it by chance myself. It's 'The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing' from the editors of Writer's Digest. A vast, 452-word tome, it addresses every aspect of writing a novel. The joy of it is that every section, every chapter is written by a different writer, yet it is superbly focused and really well constructed into sections which make complete sense. Part I is called The Craft and has chapters on plot, dialogue, point of view, character and 'The Fifty-Page Dash (on hooking your readers from the start). Part II is about The Art: now we move into the finer details, including - theme, detail, using the senses, emotion, depicting character through place. Part III focuses on The Process, including a brilliant chapter by Sue Grafton on the use of the journal in writing a novel, breaking through writer's block, pumping up your creativity, murdering your darlings, a four-step plan for revision and dealing with criticism. Part IV looks at The Genres, including Literary vs Commercial, Fantasy, Horror, Crime, Suspense and Romance. Part V explores The Marketplace with excellent chapters on writing a synopsis, approaching agents and marketing. And Part VI (The Interviews) consists of fourteen brilliant interviews with authors including Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Tom Clancy, Maeve Binchy and Kurt Vonnegut on topics as diverse as research, portraying different cultures, finding creativity, writing ordinary lives and breaking rules. This is a book you can return to again and again. I'd say that it's aimed at writers who have learned the basics of their craft and want to be stretched. It's a very, very intelligent and inspiring read.

GILLIAN: The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook is an invaluable tool for any aspiring novelist. It was the first item I bought when I decided to take the plunge and ahem.... 'write a book.' As well as being packed with articles and advice for the aspiring writer, there is an up-to-date list of literary agents which is my most leafed-through section. It's not only for novelists though; short story creators and scriptwriters can all benefit from its wisdom. The yearbook is also revised and updated annually and in that respect, I have four copies festering under my bed! There is also a website which is worth a browse. I would recommend it to any writer starting out.

HELEN: I would recommend that any writer read From Pitch To Publication from cover to cover as it is such a telling insight into how the publishing industry works from a consummate insider.
The chapter on securing an agent is searing and blows out of the water many myths and urban legends. That an author must prove him or herself , not merely a good writer, but a dedicated professional with some understanding of the market, is made plain from the start.
A no-nonsense approach for the career author.

FIONNUALA: “Will Write For Shoes – How To Write A Chick Lit Novel” by Cathy Yardley
This gem of a book, though aimed at women writing ‘chick lit,’ (a much maligned genre) is also helpful for anyone interested in writing.
Cathy Yardley introduces the book covering the beginnings of chick lit, how it’s evolved and new trends within the genre. The book is divided into the must haves to begin the story telling process, for example - characters, main and secondary, their motivations, protagonists, plot, structure, the highs and lows of story telling, point of view and voice. She then goes on to the submission process (although because she is American mainly writing for the American market – this does have more of a US flavour) finally covering how authors nowadays must also know how to sell – themselves and their product.
I love her succinct advice ‘Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Revise, revise, Revise.’
This is an informative book, hugely and effectively defensive of the genre and a must for the bookshelf of any women writing for women.

SAMANTHA: Wannabe a Writer by Jane Wenham-Jones.
I can't tell you how often I have picked up this book. It is my writing bible and doubles as a reference book and light read. The pages are packed with Jane's witticisms and full of laughter, but also take us on her journey to publication, at the same time advising us on everything we need to know, from plotting to how to approach an agent.
I particularly like the chapters headed under the title 'Occupational Hazards'. These include 'Writer's Bottom', 'Top Diets for Fat Scribes', and 'On Being Vile to Live With'.
Go on! Treat yourself! I find this book a great read when I am seeking both comfort and inspiration.

Ready, Steady Go

As some of you know, I’ve been toying with taking part in the National Novel Writing Month challenge.

The arguments for and against NaNoWriMo, have raged both here, elsewhere on the net and in real life. I won’t rehearse them, not only because I don’t want to bore you all, but because, frankly, I haven’t yet decided what I think...typical.

What I do know, however, is that I am going to do it.

There are a number of folk who have questioned my decision, in a way, not lacking bluntness and force.
Never mind the cogent theories that NaNo is no way to write a thoughtful book, completely counter intuitive to the very craft of, they just wonder why someone already making a living from writing would bloody bother.

I see where they’re coming from. I am extraordinarily lucky in that what I write, has to date at any rate, has been published.

Now, I’m not one of those who thinks you’re not a writer until you are published. I feel a writer is what a writer does and if someone is good enough to pay you for it then, fabuloso, icing and cake etc.
But once you are published, writing takes a very different place in your life than it did previously. For me, I wrote my first book for fun, never imagining anyone would ever see it. I enjoyed every second of it.
Then something wonderful happened and I got an agent. He sold it and I got a three book deal. Since then I have been in a whirlwind of writing the next book, editing the last, publicising the one before that. It’s very full on.

If this sounds like a whinge – it’s not. I wake up most days hardly able to believe this has happened to me. I make stuff up. I write it down. Some one pays me. How cool is that!

However it does mean that I have to be very professional in what I do. I have a responsibility to my editor and she has high expectations of me. Quite rightly so, given the thousands of aspiring writers who would swap places with me tomorrow.

There are also the expectations of the readership to consider. I’m not one of those writers who ‘just writes for myself’. Yes, I write books I’d like to read, but I’m not so self absorbed that I’m unable to be objective. When readers email or write to me to tell me what they loved about a book, I’m unlikely to think, well thanks very much but fuck you. I listen and learn. The views of those not in the publishing industry are often, I find, the most telling. I certainly take them on board.

So I think what I’m saying is that I am going to treat NaNo as a holiday.

The book I’m about to write isn’t for my readership, or my publishers. It’s not part of any contract, there is no-one waiting to read and edit it. No-one is planning its cover. Indeed I fully expect it to be rubbish and put it under my bed.

Perhaps, then, as a number of my friends and family have said, it is an absolute waste of my time. Time I could spend writing another ‘proper’ book.

Perhaps they’re right. Perhaps I’ll give up by next week. Who knows?

But in the meantime, I’ve signed on the dotted line and if you too are doing NaNo, come and be my buddy. My username is Damaged.

Let’s do this thing.