It's All In The Mind

The method by which one person reads a book and stores the information will differ from that of another. The human brain as I mentioned in a previous post is a complex organ and in terms of reading, it's the bookcase of the body. I have already blogged about this 'storage facility' and its ability to retain the numerous plots and finer details of the many hundreds of books we read.

But what happens when we read one book? Take, for example, a paragraph in my current WIP:

'Mind them cars. Charlie, get off the road, or you'll get knocked down.'
Da had just lifted his wallet out, when there was an almighty flash. I didn't really hear any noise, but within a second, I was lying on the ground, blood dripping from my mouth. A cloud of dust swallowed me up and I heard people, all these women, screaming like mad. I shouted for Da. I tried to crawl out of the dust, but I couldn't see past the grey wall. I didn't know where I was or what was happening. I couldn't feel my legs. The power had left them. I heard a lady shout 'Jesus Christ, help us', then someone else screamed.

What we have here is a scene which relies on visuals. There's a lot going on. When you read through this, do you store the information as a sequence of facts, or do you play out the material in your head, as if you were watching a film?

Storing the information as a mere sequence of facts without visualising would be as follows:
1. Charlie on the road.
2. Dad takes wallet out.
3. Bomb goes off.
4. Charlie on ground injured
5. Pandemonium.
6. Woman yells.

If you choose to read this while visualising the action, the brain will create the whole setting, as long as the author has been explicit enough in the information given to the reader. And it gives a more colourful picture:

Charlie is playing on the road and there are a few cars passing by. Then his dad lifts his wallet out, possibly to go into the bank, or a shop, and there is a flash. Suddenly normal, everyday life becomes chaotic. Charlie is blown to the ground following the bomb blast. He is panicking, and the reader sees the blood dripping from his mouth. The reader will also add the dust to the scene, and he or she may 'take on' the role of Charlie, imagining the chaos dissolving into the background, the image fading. The reader in the role of Charlie may feel 'desperate' to escape this bombing aftermath, given that Charlie is on the ground, trapped by his lack of mobility.

I think it's hard not to 'visualise' what's happening as you read. I put both these methods to the test by reading a chapter of a recent book, firstly making a mental note of everything that occurred, secondly, letting the action unfold visually. The first method is cumbersome and makes reading feel like a chore, not a pleasure.

I'm interested in hearing your methods of reading and storing a book. Do you simply play out the events in pictorial form as I believe most people do, following the characters around, or do you simply remember the information as a series of facts?


A few months ago I sold a painting - hang out the flags! - and treated myself to six life-coaching sessions. I’ve never had life-coaching before, but my creative life had hit such a state of blockage and despair that I knew I Had To Do Something.

Life coaching, I’ve discovered, is different from therapy. It’s very much based in the here-and-now, and around the belief that the client has the answers in herself. The coach asks questions, makes suggestions and encourages the client to take specific steps forward.

So I thought I’d pass on what I’ve learned so far, in case it helps anyone else’s writer’s block.

1. Support is Essential
We all need support. Just knowing that there’s somebody there who supports and encourages your creativity is a massive gift. Who are the supporters and warmers of your creativity and who are those who freeze or discourage it? Which parts of yourself are supportive to your creative self, and which parts are destructive to it? How can you best support yourself – and enlist support - to write regularly and wholeheartedly?

2. Baby Steps
Think too big at the beginning and you will get overwhelmed. Break up your writing journey into small, manageable steps, and, if it’s helpful, find a way of marking each forward step. A writing friend made a schedule of the editing she needed to do, chapter by chapter, stuck it on the wall and ticked each off as she completed it. She’s now finished the novel. David Whyte (author of Crossing The Unknown Sea) decided to take one small action a day towards his ambition of becoming a full-time poet. Within three months he was standing in front of an audience, an event brought about by one of his actions.

3. Be Specific
Forget what may or may not happen at the end of the process of writing your novel. Forget the state of publishing, the statistics of the slushpile. Forget too – at least for the moment – the vision of winning the Booker. It’s all too easy to get overwhelmed by the big unknowns, in life and in art. Fear thrives in the intangible, the virtual and the grandiose. Creativity thrives in the specific and the physical: in the action of sitting down to write those 500 words, or printing out your manuscript to send to one agent. What’s the next, small, specific task you can do right now? Each specific achievement embeds the concept of ‘can’ into your soul.

4. Be joyful
Sometimes it’s all too easy to forget joy. We get so wrapped up in the competition, the ambition, the achievement, that we lose sight of the sheer pleasure of being a wordsmith, of tinkering about with ideas, of playing. If you can discover what, in your life, brings you joy and simply do more of that thing, you are on the path towards fulfilment. If I keep noticing where the vitality in my life is and fish from that pool, joy follows. Joy’s a subjective business. Honour yours.

5. It’s Only Marketing
When my life coach said this, I was taken aback. Suddenly, everything fell into place. As writers, our business is to write. Everything else is marketing. Marketing includes anything that connects you and your work with the outside world, whether it’s blogging, researching agents, entering competitions, submitting to agents or publishers, or self-publishing. Necessary work, but just marketing. Nothing personal about it.

6. Two Steps Forward…
…and at least one step back. That’s the process.

As an experiment, how about choosing one of these to focus on for a week and noticing how it affects your attitude to your writing?

When retreating means going forwards

Last year I blogged about the kind of writing holiday I would love to go on – one where I'd be left to my own devices and not have to do any tutor-led writing exercises, crit anyone else's work or, heaven forbid, cook for other people.

So, last week I headed off to Retreats for You, a writing retreat run by journalist Deborah Dooley in her own idyllic 18th-century Devon house. Situated in the centre of the village of Sheepwash, the building – which was once a shop – has the happy feel of a place that's been used for living, working, gossiping and laughing for centuries. It feels like home from the moment you step through the door.

A stay at Retreats For You really is a retreat from the demands of the world. All food is provided, the tasteful and simple d├ęcor of the rooms is conducive to inner peace, and there's no pressure to do anything. You can write 24 hours a day, or you can doss around, sleep, read, walk and eat – it's up to you.

At the beginning of the retreat, I had a complete first draft of my second novel but had left it festering at that. With a deadline-esque job and a three-year-old son, even making a cup of tea feels like a self-indulgent luxury, let alone writing another book. But the story I'm working on could be pretty good, if it had the chance, so I decided to become the Daily Mail's version of the anti-Christ and abandon my little one to the care of his father for four nights.

When I arrived at Deborah's house, I faced the temptation of just clinging to the crisp lavender-scented bedding and sobbing in gratitude at the thought of sleep and proper food. But I had work to do and only four days in which to do it.

The novel was at the stage where I couldn't measure progress by word count, but neither could my efforts be dignified by the term 'editing'. It was more like trying to chop up a turkey and reassemble it as a diamond.

Retreats For You was the perfect place to get a bit of space, to have the luxury of thinking things through rather than panicking that I have to get words on the page before the next bombardment of noise and demands. I had not spent a full day writing fiction for at least 10 years and it was a real eye-opener to discover how much is possible when you can organise writing as a working day.

The retreat is full board (though Deborah also does B&B if required) and the food was gorgeous – really good, healthy, home-cooked meals that formed the perfect fuel for the writing brain. Though it's fine if you want to eat in your room and carry on working, I enjoyed the opportunity to meet up with the other guests and hear all about their progress. In a perfect example of attention to detail, Deborah even brought a pre-dinner glass of wine to our rooms each evening!

Spending a few days away with the book enabled me to fall in love with it again, and since returning home, I have been able to treat it as if it were a first novel. I don't know whether it will ever get published, but I'm writing it because I want to and because I love the characters – goodies, baddies and all. I think it's in many ways better than anything I've written before, and whatever might ultimately be its fate, it's worth finishing for its own sake. I'm glad to have had the opportunity to go on a retreat, reboot my brain and regain the joy of writing.

To find out more about Retreats For You, visit their website
Deborah Dooley guest blogged for us in July last year.

Why do we write? - Guest post by Alice Turing

A year ago, I decided to jack it all in and turn my back on writing. It was ten years to the month since I’d started writing my first novel. I’d been through many writing stages, but they’d all had one common theme.

I was trying to get noticed.

I love the stage, have always been quick to say, “Look at ME,” but have always felt slightly ashamed. And then stubbornly proud, then self-consciously indifferent, then ashamed again - on a life-long cycle. And that’s what publication is: One long look-at-me treadmill.

I sent the first three chapters of my first novel to 30 publishers and 15 agents before I finished writing it.
“Look what I’ve done!”
“Look what I’m doing!”
At first the process of packaging myself and my work was exciting. Until the rejections started to appear, and with it the angst. Was I too forward? Not forward enough? Too informal? Too previous? Too unpolished? Too bad a writer?

Twenty-eight of those 30 publishers said no, as did all 15 agents. But then, ten months after I sent it out and (weirdly, and coincidentally) two days after I finished writing it I got the phone call from the 29th publisher, saying YES. And then there was a new kind of packaging. The publisher was only small: If I wanted to set the world on fire I had to hawk my own wares. I splatted myself across the internet, organised two multi-media-performance book launches, got interviewed on Woman’s Hour, tried to display myself in a way that would MAKE PEOPLE NOTICE ME.

Part of my schtick was that I was honest and open about myself and my work. Self-consciously self-aware. It was supposed to be charming, beguiling. And there’s the thing. It was still an act. It was still a Look At Me, and the Me I wanted people to look at was a very particular me. I wasn’t allowed to admit too much doubt, or be too boring, or too conventional. I had to be upbeat. I was Selling, and salesmen never cry.

The book didn’t do too badly, given the size of the publisher. But the Woman’s Hour appearance had no effect. There were no broadsheet reviews. A few people Looked At Me, but not as many as I’d hoped, and not as enthusiastically or for as long as I wanted.

The next book was hawked - by a shiny new agent - to a great deal of publishers, large and small, around the world. The Germans published it. Nobody reviewed it there apart from a couple of disgruntled Amazon users who seemed to think they’d been promised the opposite of what they got. I said “Me, look at me” in as many ways I could think of, until finally I snapped. Nobody was looking at me. Nobody was talking about me. No-one was interested, and the fact that I wished they were only made me hate myself even more.

When I’d fielded enough rejections, when I’d swallowed a bucket-load of jealous lumps toward those who succeeded where I had failed, I gave up.

My kernel of self loathing (“Look at me, I hate myself, aren’t I interesting?”) said that I only ever wrote to get noticed. To say to the world, look at how clever I am. Love me, praise me, idolise me. But there were other reasons. I wrote because I love words. Because I like to play with them, toy with them, put them together and pull them apart. And I wanted to make something lovely. But the loveliness existed when no-one could see it, as well as when it was tarnished by my pushing it under the world’s nose like a beauty-pageant mum.

I wrote this piece because I wanted you to notice me. But publishing as a look-at-me contest makes me feel nauseous. Makes me phobic of defining myself as a writer. Makes me use a pseudonym. Makes me commit Writer Hari Kiri by vanity-publishing my second book and ensuring that no proper publisher will ever add it to their list.

Look at me, I’m an idiot. Look at me, I failed - and that was my final success.

Dance Your Way to Psychic Sex is available exclusively from

An experiment: defining success as enjoyment

Recently I’ve started to think of it like this . . . it is a space that exists somewhere in and around you. Or maybe it’s a thing that lives in that space - can’t say really. No, I think it’s the space itself. That feels quite important. All I can say is that it is there and sometimes there’s more space. When there’s more space there is room to move. A place where shadows take form. That’s when something comes. When there is more space there is light and warmth there. I haven’t seen these things with my own eyes so I don’t know what I’m talking about.

All I know is that sometimes there is less space. The space has gone or there isn’t enough space. That’s when nothing comes. That’s when it strangles. That’s when there is darkness there and a constricting dampness so cold you wouldn’t want to move, even if you could. You can’t move when there’s no space. That’s how it was last year. I’ve blogged it before, when many things died. Nothing came.

This year is different. There is already more space there. It changes day to day. When there is space it is electricity and movement and dancing. That’s when something comes. Maybe a story or a verse or just noticing: the blobs of moss on the sloping roof or a glisten of raindrop on an early summer pear. Maybe a person passing in the road. Their story isn’t ripe and neither is the pear but it means something.

Here’s what I’ve noticed when the space grows:

Not caring about how good it is (that’s the most important one).
Not caring about publication – doing it for its own sake.
Reading a snatch of poetry from the shelves.
Staring at the sea.
Opening the dictionary at random, like the Bible.
Stopping everything and being still for a moment.
Recording the moment in the Momento app on miPhone (I’ve captured 22 so far).
Lying on grass looking at dizzy clouds.
Speaking aloud in unplanned words .
Giving it enough time, not rushing. Time and space.
Listening to music without words.
Meeting with certain people who love to talk about this shit.

Sorry if this doesn’t make sense. I’ve not seen these things with my own eyes and I’ve an inclination that it might be dangerous to talk about these matters in public, in daylight. I’m trying to define success as enjoyment. At the moment I’m loving it, so that is success. But that’s the scary part too, the dangerous precipice over which we shout victory.
If you know what I mean please say what works for you.


I’m thinking about Rust.
Ron Rust.

D’you know him? Spawned from the pen of the brilliant Andrew Davies, Ron Rust is Creative Writer In Residence at Lowlands University (otherwise known as the pissant swamp). And Rust takes his job very seriously. His mission: to discourage as many students as possible from embarking on a career in Creative Writing, in order to narrow the field for himself.

Davies never explains exactly how Rust achieves this, but I think I know. Rust doesn’t leap out and bash students over the head with a rock. Nor does he set about their novels with a blow-torch. He’s much cleverer and more insidious than that:

He slowly and deliberately pours cold water over their ideas.

Have you ever encountered a Rust? You’ll know if you have. One minute you’re buzzing with excitement about your writing. The next, you’re shaking Rust’s limp and clammy hand, and your energy’s seeping away. Ron Rust is the worm in your apple, the wet in your blanket, the snake in your grass. He’s the man in the joke who, when asked for directions, says: Oooh, I wouldn’t start from here.

Sometimes, and more lethally, Rusts travel in pairs. I met a couple of ‘em in the gallery where I work. Ron spent a long (looooong) time telling me why a painting by our featured artist didn’t work for him. Ronette asked if we had any images of the exhibition, but when offered the catalogue (£2.50) said she didn’t like them that much. Eventually Ron asked what kind of work I did. I pointed out my painting. The Rusts looked, and swiftly looked away, only to resume their diatribe. Their silence said it all. Rust is, after all, the result of mixing air (nothingness/silence) with cold water. I’ve been scraping off the sediment ever since.

Rusts have always been around. Even Rudyard Kipling encountered one, in the person of the editor who returned an article to him with a note saying: ‘This isn’t a kindergarten for amateur writers. I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.’ No wonder the poor man turned to making cakes.

It never fails to astonish me how difficult it is for the Rusts of this world to squeeze out a word of encouragement. It’s not as if we writers expect the world – just a response with a flicker of interest; an acknowledgement. A tiny flame to warm the cockles of our hearts.

So let us rally for an anti-Rust day. It’s really very simple. Today, we each give someone a bit of encouragement. A word of praise. An acknowledgement of a job well done. Some enthusiastic support. A compliment. A thank you. To show we’ve noticed what they’re good at, who they are. Then all we have to do is sit back and watch their faces light up and glow.

As Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes: ‘Being with real people who warm us, who endorse and exalt our creativity, is essential to the flow of creative life. Otherwise we freeze…I’m not certain how many friends one needs, but definitely one or two who think your gift, whatever it may be, is the pan de cielo, the bread of heaven.’

Book Orphans

I have piles…

…actually only one but that got your attention, right? It’s a pile of ‘abandoned’ books that I have teetering by my bedside. In fact the orphans by now far outweigh the ‘To-Read’s. Which is a bit sad.
It’s difficult to know what to do with them. Although in the past I have been known to chuck them across the room straight into the bin. I daredn’t name names. With all these networking sites I can’t take that risk. Suffice is to say it ‘twee-ed’ me to death and I couldn’t bear it any longer. I actually felt insulted. But it would probably have delighted the next person. If Twee be their cuppa tea.
I do, however, have a small list of things that really get my goat. *clears throat*:

A Contents list. And by this I mean a list at the beginning of the book with chapter number followed by chapter title. Because a lot can be learnt from the title of a chapter. And if this is at the front of the book, then it’s going to be read before, say, Chapter One is even reached. I picked up one such book recently and by the time I’d read the titles in the contents list, I felt I’d already read the whole book. And after I’d read the first few actual pages, I was waiting for the *Chapter 1 heading* to happen. Which it did. Followed by the *Chapter 2 heading* that was about to happen. OMG. It felt so pointless. So annoying.

Mixing up the tenses/typos And, while we’re at it – isn’t this what a copy editor/proof reader is paid to iron out before it gets as far as our hands anyway? Once or twice I can kind of forgive, but every other page? No thanks. Unless the book comes with a packet of Panadol and/or a bar of Galaxy.

An MC who either works as a Florist (and there’s a LOT of those lately) an Advertising Exec, or anywhere Big in Media – or all three at the same time. Please, for crikey sake can’t we have some ordinary people who work at the Town Hall, Tesco or in the local Chippy?

A Preface. The more obscure, the heavier it sits on my mind as I try and read the rest of the story. What did it mean? Is *this* the person/situation it was alluding to? Am I missing something? Why was I given this information to begin with? I don’t know what to do with it – where does it fit? Should I skip to the end to make sure I’ve understood it properly or should I just open the nearest bottle of wine?

Too many characters. I can cope with two main and two secondary. And I’ll let those also have minor acquaintances but character overload equals brain malfunction. I want to feel close to my main characters; please don’t dilute. I once read a book that had 16 main characters. Never again. There aren’t enough highlighter pens in a set to keep up. Same with maps of the fictional area. What’s all that about?

Designer-names. If I find another MC who has a fabulous Louis Vuitton bag/scarf or hankers after some Jimmy Choos, then she’s joining that Twee book on the next flight into the WPB. What’s wrong with having a bag you got in the Matalan sale anyway? What are you implying? Aren’t I good enough for you?

Too many commas in one, sometimes five line, sentence. Please… I know the comma-splice ‘rule’ but let’s be realistic about it, okay - I thought reading was supposed to be an enjoyable experience? I don’t want to have to track back half a page to find out how the sentence began. This is not the reason I bought you.

Babies/toddlers: who get in the way. Perfectly ok if they’re the main reason FOR the story but if there’s action and/or conversation going on – please – give the child a dummy or ten quid to get out of a scene or two. References to them are fine but an interjection by them… no thanks. They’re just an annoying distraction and I have enough of those in my life already, thanks.

p.s. I got SO annoyed once, right at the end of one of  Tony Parson's books when his characters were dancing to Britney Spears' "Do that to me one more time" that I spent an eternity tracking him down to point out the error of his ways... I don't know if he ever read the e-mail  but I've never bought another of his books... so that'll teach him, won't it?!

Pet Peeves anybody?

The dying art of editing?

You often hear that the art of editing is dead. I’ve read many articles along the lines that the truly great editors, the sort who can turn a sow’s ear into a literary silk purse, are a dying breed and today, all editors really do is cross a few t's and dot a few i's.
I don’t know if this is true in some of the big publishing houses. I expect like most things, it’s true in some cases and not others. What I can say with complete confidence is that this hasn’t been my experience with the small independent publisher who has taken on my young teen novel.
If I’m hand-on-heart honest, I never really ‘got’ what an editor did until now.
Because my deal involved re-writing sections of the story, I’ve had a lot of back and forth emails with mine. It started with a revised synopsis and then I had to go away and write the altered version. I handed this in and waited with bated breath.
She got back to me within days saying lots of nice things but telling me my ending still wasn’t right. I was quite tempted to howl on the ground and drum my feet at this point, convinced I was just a rubbish writer who would never do it properly. She assured me this was all perfectly normal, even with well-established authors.
I felt a bit better. And then she sent on the marked up copy...
My first reaction was, to put it in blunt and not very erudite terms, OMG in fifty point bold capitals. It seemed like she had gone through with a red pen and hated every word of it. It didn’t help that I was ill that day and had no sense of perspective about anything.
A couple of days later I sat down with it properly and carefully went through all the comments. I was struck forcibly by two things. One was that some of the changes were incredibly small, the other was that I could see she was right in the overwhelming majority of cases.
I’ve just finished my second re-write and the editor has breezily assured me that there will no doubt still be a few issues to be resolved. I feel like I can cope with this because I know that will result from all this will be a much better book.
So whatever you might hear, the art of editing is definitely not dead everywhere.

I said No To J.K.

The McDade Literary Agency Ltd

January 1995

Dear Joanne Rowling

Thank you for your recent submission entitled 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone'. I'm sorry to say that after careful consideration of your manuscript I do not feel that I am the right person for this book. I admire your storyline and characters, but I'm afraid it does not grab me in the way it should.

I am sorry to disappoint and I hope that other agents and publishers feel differently. I wish you well in your future endeavours.

Gillian McDade

The lesson is that even though I (assuming the role of a literary agent) did not find the first few pages of the now legendary J.K Rowling's manuscript engaging enough (*ducks for cover from Harry Potter fans*), there are others who will. And aren't we glad Christoper Little did? Otherwise we would never have known the phenomenon that is Harry Potter.

We'll go back a few years...Joanne walks into the library in Edinburgh in 1995 and looks up a list of agents. She finds me. Fast forward a few days and the brown envelope goes into the postbox. That's after Joanne has opened the envelope again to make sure she has included the stamped addressed envelope and that she has spelt her own name right.

Picture this: I open Joanne's manuscript, I read the first page, my attention wanes, I sip at a can of Coke, nibble a few crisps, I look out the window and glimpse a man taking his dog for a walk, I glance at Joanne's synopsis. I wonder what the weather will be like. I go with my gut instinct – that she hasn't a hope in hell of this getting published. I don't even stop to consider this. Harry Potter really isn't my thing. Sorry, Jo.

So after Joanne receives her carefully worded rejection letter from me which I've forgotten to sign, she goes back to the library. She leafs through all the agents in the UK and Ireland and she likes the name 'Little.' Sounds like a character that would feature in a children's book. She sends it off to Mr Little and he loves it.

As her literary agent, Christopher Little receives between 10 and 15 per cent of J.K's earnings and a similar percentage of overseas earnings and film rights. J.K is believed to have earned a minimum of £150 million from Harry Potter – so my message is – don't give up, even when you get a pile of ten rejections in one day.

Have no fear. Believe in your work and your ability because that shows through when you submit it. It's also compulsory to enter The World Of Rejection Letters. Any respectable author has holidayed there for a period of time. They're part and parcel of the process and nothing to be ashamed of. You can file those letters away, frame them and make paper aeroplanes out of them, or do as I do and use them as bookmarks for your Writers' And Artists' Yearbook. If you hit the wall, walk around it. Please remember that someone out there will always say no. I said no to J.K.

Someone sent me this photo and it reminded me of Caroline's recent Strictly Writing post. The pie master had obviously gone to great lengths to get this wrong.

When To Whip The WIP

So, I decided before going on holiday that on my return, it would be head down for the rest of August to finish the first draft of the current WIP.

The trouble is twenty five thousand words in and recently I've had these other characters, from another book idea totally, demanding to be heard. I put them on the back burner months ago because the voices from the WIP were coming through louder. Now it seems they're being bullied into submission. And I hate it.

I've thought about combining them - somehow introducing these loud beasts - but they just don't belong in the WIP. I've tried to ignore them. And yes, I've thought about dumping the WIP and writing the 'other book idea.'

That's when I started to cry. On a beach in Spain. Sobbing. Weeping. Loud, snotty, unattractive tears. With hubby nearby, who works sixty hours a week, trying to remain patient and calm, when inside he was probably screaming as loud as one of the noisy intruders. He did try and help by suggesting maybe I was reading too much- allowing too many other author's distracting characters into my head space??? Hmmm... Nope. The noise was from my own imagination... All loud and bullish and quite frankly, rude.

My WIP is my third book. And the truth is I'm putting enormous pressure on myself for this to be 'the one.' I know everyone will say to just relax; write what comes naturally, what feels right - but I feel like the girl who's waiting for Mr Right? You know that friend we all have, who was waiting and watching for HIM to turn up and as soon as she allowed herself to be comfortably single - he walked right into her life. I'm still in the nervous watching and waiting period.

I figure I need to allow myself to be comfortably unpublished.

And I need to finish my WIP because it's a story I want to tell and I'm loving the characters. It's called 'Motherlove' and who knows if it will be the one? But writing about it here, fills me with joy and I just know I have to finish it.

Meantime, I have to find a way to silence the noise. Ear plugs? Listen to music? Take a pill? Bribe them? Say, 'Hey guys, look - just wait? I'll get back to you in September as soon as I'm done with these people here. I promise. Okay?'

Ooh, they were quiet as I wrote that. Bribery and pleading might just work?

If not, I'll play them music of the Nickelback kind. That'll teach 'em.

(Thank you to the wonderful Debbie Ridpath Ohi for permission to use one of her 'Inky girl comics'. Do visit her website at

The Times They are a changing...

In a recent edition of the Bookseller, Victoria Barnsley, CEO of HarperCollins, gave an overview of the first half of 2010 in publishing terms. Things, to be frank, had not gone well. Neilsen Bookscan gave the grim stats : total value of booksales had fallen by 5.7%.

Take into account the huge sales from the Twilight series et al, and most authors have had a prettu torrid time of it.

Obviously there has been a recession and folks are buying less of everything. Given a toss up between stuff for the kids' packed lunches and a copy of War and Peace, it's a no-brainer.

Even the most hardened of book buyers among us are taking a long look at our shelves before slipping down to Smiths for the latest offering. I'm sure we're not alone in Casa Black, in that we have enough unread novels to keep us in clover for ten years. Forking out for more is not top of our agenda.

The credit crunch, however, seems not to be the sole cause of the publishing industry's woes. Victoria Barnsley confirms. 'Our business needs to change...To be honest, I don't anticipate the market ever returning to pre-recession levels in its current form.'

One of the ways Ms Barnsley sees HarperColins moving forward is by cutting the number of titles it publishes.

Of course, I know there will be groans all round from those attempting to find a publisher, but still I think that reducing the number of titles published each year is the right way to go.

In the last ten years the larger publishing houses have been churning out an ever increasing number of books. Many have a shelf life of less than three months as the publishers sell in another batch of new releases. Indeed, many books never even make it onto the shelves of the major booksellers. With too many titles and too little space, they wallow and die. The film equivalent of straight to video.

How any publisher can complain about poor sales about a particular book when readers have had no chance to buy it, is beyond me. But complain they do. A mate of mine was dropped after his second book bombed, despite it never coming within a whisper of a high street book shop or having any publicity whatsoever.
For too many books the plan seems to be, publish and hope for the best.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating quotas etc and I'm certainly not saying that good books shouldn't get their chance in the sun because we don't want too much competition.

But I am saying that common sense should prevail.

Publishers need to think long and hard before they choose which books to go with, then get behind them. Each one should be properly edited, then a strategy worked out to give it the best chance of survival. Most writers I know, are only too happy to help with publicity etc.
A book is a huge investment for a publisher and should be treated as such.

Perhaps this comes across as protectionist. I'm a published author and am only too glad to have the market shrink it's true.
Maybe that's true.
But I'd also rather see a robust publishing industry, where authors can eat and pay their rent. Where debut writers have a hope of seeing their third book on the shelves, rather than being consigned to the archives.
I think a thoughtful reduction in titles can only help.

Submissive by Roderic Vincent

They say it's a good idea to keep a log. Here's mine:

Christopher Little was non non-committal.
I believe A&B mostly go for TV.
The Marsh Agency was harsh as can be
and David Higham, to me, look exclusive: don’t try ‘em.
Heard Aitken Alexander is wary of slander
and Rupert Crew takes on very few.
From Susanna Lea, ‘It’s not right for me’ and
a slip by Diane Banks said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’

Rogers Coleridge & White thought my plot wasn’t tight
as did Robert Dudley: 'Your synopsis is muddly.'
Plain words Maggie Noach, ‘No unsolicited approach.’
Jonathan Clowes, ‘You’ve got talent it showes;
but I’m afraid in this market, it’s one of our nowes.’
‘Reads like pulling teeth,’ so said AM Heath.
The excuse from Simon Trewin: too full to fit yewin.
The script that I mailed has yet to come back

from the deep laden desk of Mr Scott Pack.
I don’t write for kids so I got zero joy
from the package I posted Elizabeth Roy.
From Theresa Chris, ‘We couldn’t place this.’
This office is small complained Christine Green
I could tell she didn’t want me to think she was mean.
Marianne Gunn O’Connor said my genre’s a gonner.
Those who work at Artellus want only the marvellous.

Got this from Brie Burkeman, ‘It needs too much work, man.’
Capel & Land reject out of hand
but Curtis Brown nose all about town
in search of a deal, as does Ms Elaine Steel
but, like PFD, they both passed on me.
Felicity Bryan at least thanks you for trying,
while Tibor Jones didn’t answer the phones.
AP Watt simply forgot.

Any resemblance of names to actual UK literary agents, agencies or publishers is entirely fortuitous. The above is fictional and in reality I've only sent out about half a dozen subs so far.

Writing Short Stories – There’s No Need To Be Scared! – Guest Post by Nik Perring

To celebrate the halfway-mark of the Strictly Writing Award (see over there on the right for full Rules and Regs), we asked successful short story writer, Nik Perring what his advice would be to any aspiring writers out there who were thinking of turning one in to us, and here's what he had to say:

I’ve been writing short stories for a few years now, with reasonable success. I’ve also, over those few years, talked to a lot of people about short stories and it seems to me that a lot of those people are, somehow, scared of them. A bit like poetry. It’s as though there’s a secret you need to get them and an even bigger, magical, one you need to be able to write them. Well, I’m here to tell you that’s not true. Anybody can write and read short stories, and if they want to, they should. Or at least give them a try.

There’s no magic formula I can share with you that’ll make you write great short stories. I wish there was. If there was one it’d save me an awful lot of time. What I can tell you, though, are a few things that work for me.

Writing short stories, really, is no different to writing novels – the same principles apply. The only difference is that short stories are, well, simply shorter. And I think that can be daunting to some people – it really needn’t be.

Here are some thoughts and suggestions that, I hope, will help.

So. Where to begin? If you’d have asked the wonderful Kurt Vonnegut (whose short stories are brilliant), he’d have said ‘As close to the end as possible’. And I’d agree with that because it means we’ll be starting the story at a point where things are getting interesting.

Most importantly, you need to find something or someone interesting to write about. I often find that asking myself ‘What if?’ questions help: What if someone suffered from an illness that meant they couldn’t actually stop moving?; What if someone chose to decorate their walls with Post-it notes? What if the only way a woman could shut up her husband was by taking off her clothes? That kind of thing works for me and allows me to write the story to find out the answer. It could work for you too...

One of the most common worries I’ve found people have when they’re thinking about writing short stories (or not writing them!) is that of word count. ‘But how long is a short story?’ they’ll say. ‘How long should one be?’

And my answer to them. One: Stop Worrying! And two: It’ll be as long as it is.

I honestly never worry about word count. The important thing with any story (and I’d include novels here as they’re stories too) is that, as writers, we should allow them to become what they should be. We tell the story as best we can without giving a second thought to length. The moment we start to pad things out, or cut things, for the sake of the length is the moment when the story will stop working, where it’ll get bent out of shape. And that’s the last thing we want to happen. Don’t forget that once you’ve written a first draft, the parts that need more explanation or that need to go will become apparent and can be fixed – but that should only be for the story’s sake and not so it fits in with any imposed word count.

But, if you want some guide as to what sort of shape (or length) a short story should be, I’d point you in the direction of a collection of fairy tales.

What I also find really useful, and this probably a very obvious one, is reading good contemporary shorts to see what people are doing are how they’re doing it. (I’d recommend reading people like Aimee Bender (I interviewed her about this sort of thing here ( ), Etgar Keret, Sarah Salway, Michael Czyzniejewski, Mary Miller, and Amy Hempel.)

Likewise, read the greats: Carver, Hemingway, Checkhov, Kafka, Vonnegut, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, Joyce Carol Oates, and so on. See why they’re greats.

And ENJOY it! Writing’s supposed to be fun. We’re supposed to enjoy it! Sure, edits and making something interesting into something great can be an awful lot of hard work – but that hard work’s much more enjoyable if it’s being done on something we enjoy and find interesting.

Which kinda leads me to my next point, and that’s one about content. A lot of people think that short stories are super-literary and/or overly worthy. Sure, some are. Some are boring. No different to novels. So it’s important that, as with novels, you write the story you want to write. A story doesn’t have to be anything other than good.

So, go on. Try writing one. Enjoy yourselves. You might find you actually quite like it!

Nik Perring is a writer, and occasional teacher of writing, from the north west. His short stories have been published widely in places including SmokeLong Quarterly, 3 :AM and Word Riot. They’ve also been read at events and on radio, printed on fliers and used as part of a high school distance learning course in the US.

Nik’s debut collection of short stories, NOT SO PERFECT is published by Roast Books and is out now. Nik blogs here ( and his website’s here ( He also offers short story help here (

Quickfire Questions with YA author Hilary Freeman

Which writer would you be for a day?

I'd like to be JK Rowling, to see what gaining enormous wealth and fame through writing is really like (as I'm sure it will never happen to me). I'm guessing it's not all it's cracked up to be.

Independent bookshop or Amazon?

Independent bookshop. There aren't enough of them left and they provide a personal service and browsing atmosphere that the web can never hope (and doesn't even try) to match. They care about books and writers. Can I plug my local independent bookshop, the Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town road?

Left on a cliffhanger or told all?

Depends on my mood. I'm the sort of person who googles episode guides to see what happens in future episodes of series not yet broadcast in the UK, and can't help a sneaky peek at the ends of books (I do try to restrain myself). On the other hand, I do like a good cliffhanger - I use them in my books and enjoy reading them. I like being able to use my imagination to figure out what might happen next. Life is a cliffhanger, never neatly wrapped up, so books should be too.

You really must read…

My books? Sorry, I know I can't really say that! Anthony McGowan is a fabulous writer. His books are aimed primarily at teenage boys but they are very well-written, funny and sophisticated.

The children’s book I wish I’d written most is….

The Little Prince. It's my favourite book and appeals as much to the adult me as the child me. It's a universal book in every sense of the word. I even love the illustrations. I also wish I'd written Twilight, so I wouldn't have to worry about paying my mortgage anymore.

I get most excited by…

Seeing the very first copy of my book. After all the hard work, the agonies, the editing, the feeling when you receive it as a proper, published, finished book, with that lovely new book smell, can't be beaten.

I know I have my story when….

It's just there, organically, in my head. It feels like it can't be any other way and that it has always existed.

My biggest tip for a writer is…

Write. Procrastination is your enemy. As is Facebook. If you don't know where to start, don't start at the beginning, start in the middle. Just write a few sentences, whatever springs to mind. Once you have something on paper, a lot of the fear disappears.

An author should never…

Pick their nose? Drop their laptop? Expect to make a proper living?
Forget how fantastic it is to be published, when so many people would love to be?

Favourite desktop snack?

Jelly Belly jelly beans. Pear or cantaloupe flavours.

Favourite work outfit

My dressing gown. I'm ashamed to admit that I don't usually get dressed until the afternoon.

Best thing about my job is…

The flexibility, not having to be in an office from 9-5 with someone else barking orders. And finally being able to be 'me', to express myself in the way I want to.

Email or phone?

Phone. I'm a chatterbox. And I spend all day writing, so would rather talk if I don't have to type.

The hardest part of my job is…

The insecurity and cashflow problems.

If I wasn’t a writer I’d be…

Very miserable.
I'd probably be doing something like counselling. I sometimes wish I'd trained as a doctor (although I wasn't very good at science).

Hilary Freeman is an experienced journalist and agony aunt, working for national newspapers, magazines and websites, as well as on TV and radio. She has been agony aunt for CosmoGirl! and Sky and is currently a relationship adviser for Her other jobs have included being a leg model and a very bad cleaner. Hilary loves singing karaoke and doodling (her art teacher bought her school exam painting, but she hasn't sold anything since).
Her first novel, Loving Danny, was shortlisted for the Lancashire Children's Book of the Year Award. Her current novel is called Lifted. She lives in Camden Town with her musician husband and the occasional pesky rodent.
Find out more about her at: