The slushpile

I’m very chuffed to be able to introduce Nicola Morgan onto this great blog to talk about her new ebook, Write a Great Synopsis: An Expert Guide. Hopefully it will help readers here as much as it’s helped me!

Hello, Strictly Writing readers and thanks for hosting me on the Write a Great Synopsis (WAGS) blog tour.

I have always liked writing synopses and I hadn’t realised what a problem writers had with them until so many people started angsting about it. Many of the questions I get are about how to write this thing that seems to me to be the simplest part of a writer’s work. So, that’s what Write a Great Synopsis is about. I aim to solve the problems and make the task simple and stressfree.

The WAGS blog tour consists of a mix of interviews and extracts. It’s an extract that I thought I’d offer you today. And there’s a competition, too – with prizes of synopsis critiques!

One of the crucial things that writers find most difficult is knowing what to leave out of a synopsis. My extract below consists of two analogies that help you visualise the answer to this.

(Reproduced from Write a Great Synopsis – An Expert Guide)

The synopsis as a journey
Here is a way of thinking that I find useful. Imagine your synopsis as a journey. This is what we need to know:
1. Who is on the journey and why?
2. What is the intended destination and why?
3. What terrible thing will happen if they don’t reach their destination and who or what is trying to stop them?
4. What happens to knock the travellers off course?
5. What characteristics and tools do they use to get back on course?
6. What is their actual destination and who survives and with what injuries?

Here’s what we do NOT need to know:
1. The detours they took along the way.
2. The weather.
3. What they had for their picnic.
4. What they said to each other.
5. What the scenery was like.
6. The route in order.
7. The people they met on the journey, unless one of them is an axe-murderer or someone equally useful.

The synopsis as a healthy human
This is my other analogy. If your synopsis were a human, in order to see that the human is alive and strong we would need to see the healthy glow of the skin and that it is supported by a strong skeleton. We don’t actually see the skeleton, but we know it’s all there. We don’t need to see that the organs are all present and working – that’s obvious from the healthy glow of the skin and the light shining from the eyes. We do need to see the feet: the end of the story. A synopsis without an end is like a human without feet.
(Extract ends)

Analogies never present the whole picture but they are often a good start, offering a visual element to boost understanding of the rest of the argument. Write a Great Synopsis covers everything about synopsis-writing, clearly and reassuringly. At the end of it I believe you truly will say to yourself, “Don’t panic – it’s only a synopsis!” That is my aim.

All commenters below (by Feb 15th) will be entered into the Big WAGS Competition, with chances to win a critique of your synopsis by the Crabbit Old Bat herself! One comment per person on each blog – though you can add to your chances by commenting on the other posts on the tour. Details of all stops on the tour will appear on Help! I Need a Publisher! as they go out.

Thank you for listening and I do hope I can help you write a great synopsis! For details about the book, including buying options, go here.

Let's actually write something today

This won't take long to read.

Here's a little exercise I did with a friend the other day and it worked out just lufferly. Phone a writing buddy and agree what you are going to do today. All of your main activities for the day. Not too many, mind. The important thing is to commit to each of them and then agree that you will speak again at the end of the day. For example, I will: 1. Clean the fridge 2. Go and buy Daniel's birthday present 3. Write a first draft of that short story 4. Go to gym

When I did this exercise recently I achieved all of the agreed tasks before lunch. I think the important thing is to set some realistic tasks and encourage your buddy to do the same.

Okay, this is for real. Monday 30 January 2012. I will: 1. Check in with my business partner after my holiday. 2. Make arrangements or book time to do amendments on the marketing project. 3. Go through my poems and choose a batch to submit to mags. 4. Go to gym.

Have to go now . . .

Friday's watching round-up

Okay so we've talked about what we're reading and writing. Here's what the Strictlies are watching on telly.

 Do let us know what you're hooked on right now...

All I'm watching these days is terrible reality shows and Location Location, because I'm looking for a place to buy.  Comfort telly.
I'm Watching masterchef and Too Fat For Fifteen on Watch HD.
Well I've been watching Sherlock which was as close to sublime as anything I can think of. Also Masterchef. The PHD atomic physisist rocks!!!
Watching? Mainly a blank computer screen, but Birdsong and Snog, Marry, Avoid recently (shameful) Put me down for Sherlock please as well, I'm asking for him in a boxed set for my birthday - I am SHERLOCKED! 
Still feeling bereaved at The Killing II  ending and also The Slap, which was an Australian drama based on the best selling book by Christopher Tsiolkas. One of the best bits of television I've seen in years. So now I'm mainly glued to Masterchef! Does anyone else ever get a bit emotional at Masterchef?

Seeing our writing as others see it

O wad some power the giftie us
To see oursels as ithers see us
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion

I feel a bit sorry for the woman in Robert Burns's poem 'To a Louse.' There she is, minding her own business in church, and not only does she have a headlouse viewing her as nothing more than his next meal, but there happens to be a poetic genius around to immortalise her decision to wear a nice hat. Still, I suppose nits and poets can happen to anyone. They like clean hair, apparently.

Wouldn't it be useful to be able to see our writing as others see it? Such an ability would have saved me a lot of angst over the years. I could check at a glance whether my work made sense; whether it was cringeworthy; whether a naff simile was actually original to fresh eyes; whether I used semi-colons when commas would do. The clarity would enable me not only to avoid the blunders, but perhaps to stop mucking about with the good bits too.

Heaven forbid that this ability should be innate, however. It would have to have kicked in when I was at least 25 and had been round the writer's block a few times, because if I had possessed such a talent during my teens, I would probably never have written another word. Awareness of our own failings might be an admirable state, but I reserve the right for my teenage self to churn out as much woeful adjective-filled tut as possible, and to be pleased with herself for having done so. If you can't have a few foolish notions when you're 16, when can you?

When I wonder what it would be like to view my writing from another reader's point of view, my first instinct is to want to spot any technical failings. On a practical level I do try to make my writing look as unlike my own as possible, by changing the typeface or converting the file to PDF. (Turning things into PDFs immediately makes them look better for some reason – maybe I should try this for my face!)

Technical details, however, are not what I'd really like to know about how other people view my fiction. I don't ask readers what they think of my book because I firmly believe it's none of my business. They have every right to like it or not like it – and if they reckon it's lousy, there's not much I can do about it anyway. But out of pure nosiness, the thing I'd find fascinating is to know exactly how people picture my characters and settings. It would be amazing to see photographic images of someone else's perception – how different would the characters be from the way I see them? Would they be clear or indistinct? Would they look like people the reader knows, or would they be purely imaginary? Would they change the images I hold in my own mind and make me see my work in a new light?

If you could see your writing as others see it – what's the first thing you'd want to know?  

A Re-Kindled Spirit

Crikey.  Who'd have thought. Not me that's for sure.

My daughter summed up my biggest fear when I told her I'd spent the best part of three days and four nights on both the Picnik and Kindle Direct sites designing the cover and formatting and re-formatting and loading and deleting and uploading and re-uploading and ... well, you get the drift... she said I was scared of the 'Pity Purchases'.  And I was.  So, so scared of them.  Because I've done it myself.  I have writer  friends who've published books - proper paper books with print on them and everything.. I know! ... and  because they're friends and I've known them years (some for over a decade) when they announce they have a new book out, what's the first thing I do?
Okay, second then... the first is always to check my green-levels, lay a metaphorical damp flannel on my seething, jealousy-consumed parts and calm down.  Secondly I fly a reply straight back telling them the news is 'fantastic' (which it is, of course it IS) and that I shall be purchasing said new publication as quick as you like.
Which for me, defeats the point.  Because I almost never read them.  In fact sometimes I don't even get round to buying them. *shameface* And it's not because I don't like said writer friend, it's just that what they write just isn't my kind of 'read'.  And if I bought every book written by every 'virtual friend then my shelves would be full to bursting with guilt-edged paperbacks.
So it was with great trepidation that I finally decided I'd self-publish my first teenage book.
My decision was 'helped along by a number of things, namely:
  • a particularly big Birthday looming
  • the encouragement and unfailing support of my beloved daughter, to whom the book is dedicated (although she hasn't read it... I rest my case...)
  • the fact that the characters in this book deserve to be met.  They spent nearly two years with two separate agents, underwent three re-writes (at one agent's suggestions) and three different endings only to be shown the nice but still painful door marked 'Rejection'.
  • I loved designing the cover so much I wanted the world to see it.
  • a particularly Big Birthday .. wait, have I already said that?
  • The pressure of precisely Zero. - i.e. no Agent or Publisher to impress, no sales figures to worry about, no shonky marketing to panic over, no angsting over ranking and certainly no deadline over when/what book #2 will be because I've got that covered.
And actually it makes me sad to think that these 39 chapters would just be languishing idle in a dead file somewhere on the home pc and in the folder which sits beside me in my little room if I didn't set it 'free'.

When I finally pressed 'publish' on the Amazon site, I had a cup of tea and caught up with Sherlock.  The only people I 'announced' it to was my daughter, my husband and a writerly friend.  One texted me back with a 'whoop! one passed me a biscuit and Fi accidentally sent me her credit card details when she bought a copy* (thanks, our new TV is smashing!)
So, I give you 'Dead Good' (originally born 'Double History' and recently renamed) Also meet D A Cooper.  She was me, once. She is still only half me.  I'm actually a D.J. but a writer friend said the initials suggested more music than words.

It's here but UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES is this to be 'pity-purchased' - I will be justifiably insulted if this happens and I WILL hunt you down (I'm sure I'd work out how and who and where.... so don't even TRY it :).  I want this book to travel the good old-fashioned route to it's 'target' readership which is teenage/young adult based with a handsome ghost bias.
So, phew.  Does this mean I don't get to die unpublished?  Does it count? I'm still not entirely sure but I am very glad it has the chance of being read by whoever stumbles across it and I'm even looking forward to it getting some wobbly reviews.  Any kind of feedback other than 'not for us, thanks' is going to be much better received, I guarantee.

By llama deciding

I find anagrams quite fascinating – there are so many possibilities with each word. It's a time wasting exercise and I wonder about the intellectual capabilities of these websites which can jiggle letters so efficiently. They are so much quicker and smarter than the best contestants on Countdown. But rather than spend hours using my own brain, I decided to visit an anagram generator site to see what goods it would bring forth. Just for fun, of course. But it can get addictive! I typed my name first – I was ‘llama deciding’ then I moved on to a few of my favourite books. ‘The Secret History’ became ‘The Erotic Shyster’ and ‘Darkmans’ became ‘Mad Ranks’. I keyed in ‘The Dissident’ and the generator came up with ‘This Destined’. I then tried ‘Let The Great World Spin’ and it spat out ‘Shrewd Tolerant Piglet.’
Some are random and amusing, raising a giggle or two. I tried my own book – ‘Damning Ants’ it stated. Even if your book title is short, it guarantees a response as the generator will deal with seven to thirty characters. Poor William Shakespeare states ‘I Am A Weakish Speller’ while Julian Barnes is ‘Banal Injures’ and JM Coetzee is ‘Jeez Comet.’

Here is a fun list -

Great Expectations – ‘Castigate On Expert’

Wuthering Heights – ‘Win Thuggish Three’

The Satanic Verses – ‘Scares The Natives’

Cecilia Ahern – ‘A Chancier Lie’

The Sisters Brothers – ‘Birth Or The Stresses’

Pigeon English – ‘In Sleeping Hog’

The Sense Of An Ending – ‘An Eighteen Fondness’

Hunter S Thompson – ‘Shorten On Thumps’

AS Byatt – ‘Batty As’

Margaret Atwood – ‘Dear Warm To Goat’

Are there any books or authors the generator can’t handle? We could have hours of fun with this – try inputting your agent or publisher. See what comes up…..

Work, work, busy, busy...

So last Friday you told us what you were reading and very interesting that was too. A bit like peeking into someone's bedroom. Only not as pervy.

Well we're still on a nosy kick and wondered, since we're all writers here, what you're currently working on.
Again, in a spirit of touchy feely sharing and wot-not, here's what the Strctly gang currently have on their desk.

Helen is on the first draft of her sixth novel which she has tentatively called Dark Spaces. And no it's not sci-fi.

Suzie is going through the copy-edit of The Making of Her and gasping at the number of hyphens she uses.

Gillian is writing a letter of complaint to a well known car dealer along the lines of 'Dear Sir, I'm really pissed off with your car...'

Fi is beginning a total re-write of her first novel. Gulp.

Caroline G is writing her third book for Picadilly Press. She's still on the first draft and finding her way in despite having a plan!

Caroline R is writing a 5,000 word essay on Ignaz Semmelweis for her MA. It is due in on Monday and frankly, she will be glad to see the back of it.

So come on guys. Tell us about your WIP.

The Birds and the Bees

So it recently hit me that my novel will be published on (don’t snigger) April 1st and that the file labelled Marketing, which has hitherto sat on a shelf above my desk in a floaty, non-threatening, futuristic kind of way, has begun to jump up and down and beckon me – or whatever a marketing file without hands or feet does to signal Urgency.

It’s time, it seems, to enter the publicity machine. Or rather, the animal kingdom. I must imitate the bee and Create A Buzz around my book. I must emulate the bird and learn to Twitter and Tweet (even, it seems, to Re-Tweet - which for some disgusting reason brings to mind Refried Beans). I must copy the spider and spin a website to entice unwary media flies to my lair (mwa-ha-ha).

Now all this doesn’t come easily to me. One of my reasons for leaving the BBC, back in 1996, was because of the emphasis on what they called Your Profile In The Department. In other words, it wasn’t enough to make programmes: you had to be seen to be making them. Whereas all I wanted was to hide away in my tatty corner of the horribly open-plan office and just get on with it. Or so I told myself. So what’s different this time around?

Maybe, like any pushy parent, I want to do the best for my book. I want it to be top of the class, invited to all the right parties, chosen for the first team and elected Head Prefect (jolly hockeysticks and shades of Mallory Towers).

Or maybe my Media Tart is coming out of the closet.

O Media Tart – you of the black lace padded bra, the pillar-box lipstick, the tottering sparkly heels, the perpetually astonished Botoxed brows and the sooty false eyelashes, all the better to flutter at unwary victims –

Erm, sorry. I digress. Get back in that closet, will you, and shut the door.

So I’ve made a start on the seven pages of what-seemed-like-brilliant-ideas-at-the-time. I’ve contacted well-known media figures to ask if they might read and possibly review The Making of Her. So far, the tally is: three no’s (one of them absolutely delightful – thanks, Bel Mooney), one yes, perhaps and six waiting. I’ve crouched over Benn’s Media in the library, sandwiched between whispering students, and copied out 50 contacts, from glossy magazines to cosmetic surgery trade magazines. After that, I will turn to newspapers, literary festivals, bookgroups and local publications. My new Publicity Profile will be peppered with postcards and press releases. I will Face Up to Facebook, Brazen it at Bookstores, Bare All to Bloggers and generally learn to Be Nice.

The other day I had an email from my publisher, wondering whether a new book was in the pipeline. My inner writer attempted to reply, but was prevented by the Media Tart who had decided it was prudent to sit on her.

Will any of these activities make an iota of difference to sales? Ask me in six months time, when the inner writer will hopefully be back in her dark corner, plying her trade.

Meanwhile, let the Media Tart have her wicked, wanton way. Let her make predatory eyes at the press. Let her toss away her black bra and frolic with the birds and the bees.

And wish her luck, will you? I think she may need it

Same story, just different...

Last Thursday I went to the cinema with three girlfriends.

To be honest, I rarely do this because Mr Black doesn't get home from work 'til 8.30pm at the earliest, and I worry the children will burn down the house, kill one another or eat the dog, if I head out of the house before he heads in. I recall a stern telephone conversation from Green Park tube station where I was telling my daughter that no, she should not boil an egg. When I say stern , you understand that that is middle class bullshit for shouting right? Commuters all around frowned at me while I screamed into my mobile, 'do not ruin my one night out a year by getting third degree burns! Do you hear me lady?'

Anway, I threw caution to the wind and left 'em to it on Thursday because we had tickets for We Need To Talk About Kevin.

I don't know if you've read the book. If you haven't, do so immediately. It is a work of - and I use this word advisedly - genius. It is the sort of book that, as a writer, you shake your head in awe at the intricacy on display. It's all there; voice, unreliable narrator, structure, tension, twist in the tale. The author, Lionel Shriver plays a blinder.

So I was really excited to see the film. I wasn't sure what to expect. I mean, we've all seen adaptations of books we love and hated them right? Personally, I don't know if I'll ever get over Fight Club. God knows I could look at Brad Pitt all freaking day but that film was a travesty I tell ya, a travesty.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those nay sayers who think all adaptations are rubbish. That the silver screen can never match the glory of the written word. I don't think that at all. Probably my fave book of all time is Trainspotting, or at leats it would come in my top five. And I bloody love that film too. Danny Boyle takes all the elements that make the novel seminal (the rock n roll cool factor, the complete lack of judgmentalism about drugs, the voices) and incorporates them into his film. What he doesn't do is try to follow the plot, such as it is, too closely or worry about the things that a book can do and a film can't. He leaves them be and runs with what a film can do that a book can't - a soundtrack for one.

Lynne Ramsay's We Need To Talk About Kevin follows the same path in that the director leaves many of the central themes that she cannot replicate in cinema well alone, instead concentrating on breathtaking cinematography and symbolism that any shrink would be proud of. It is a feast for the eyes. The actors are all fabulous.
As a film it is both dazzlingly beautiful and unremittingly bleak.

But here's the thing. The book isn't either of those things. Where Danny Boyle ran with the original's coolth factor, just giving it to us differently, Lynne Ramsay skips what to my mind is the totem pole of the book, it's spine if you like. The thing that makes We Need To Talk About Kevin a page turner, and it is, despite knowing early on in proceedings what happens, was the reader's inability to guess where the truth lay. Was Kevin evil from birth? Or did his Mother simply hate him from birth? It is the central question which rages on every page...without it there is no We Need To Talk About Kevin. There is just a (undeniably beautiful) depiction of the aftermath of a horrible crime.

And speaking of which, I discovered when I got home that the kids hadn't eaten the dog but nor had they taken her out for an evening poo...

Friday's Reading Round up...

When you see someone on the tube or the bus do you check out what they're reading?

Do you wonder what books other people have on their bedside table?

Don't know about you lot but for we Strictlies it's guilty as charged. So please indulge our nosiness and tell us what you're reading at present. We won't judge. And just to show our good faith, here's the list of what we've got on the go...

Helen is reading Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg.
Fi has her head in The Help by Kathryn Stockett.
For Debs, it's Me Before You by Jo Jo Moyes.
Susie's half way through Three Men On a Plane by Mavis cheeks.
Gillian is juggling two: Cold Light by Jenn Ashworth and The Sisters Brothers by Patrick de Witt.
Caroline G is reading Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher.
And Rod is into Antoinette Quinn's biography of Patrick Kavanagh.

But this must surely win a prize?
Our Caroline R has this one keeping her up at night: The Worm in the Bud: The World of Victorian Sexuality by Ronald Pearsall.

So come one. Fess up. Tell us what you're reading.

Grate cookbooks giving you a pizza their mind!

Normally at Christmas we get stuck into the turkey (or the Quorn roast, if, like me you are a vegetarian), the mince pies and the puddings, but this year I wasn’t just as keen to go all traditional. Just before Christmas I Sky Plus-ed a programme called Jerusalem On A Plate which was a journey by chef Yotam Ottolenghi back to his native city, a place of strong food traditions. I love to sample dishes from other cultures and while watching the programme, my mouth watered as I saw the vast array of spices being added to vibrant dishes which are so much part of Arabic and Jewish culture. I suddenly forgot about the mediocre brussel sprouts, roast potatoes, carrots, parsnips and creamy mash that I’d consumed and began reading more about these wonderful ingredients used in Middle Eastern cuisine. Chick peas, z’hatar, turmeric, olive oil, coriander, bulgar wheat, pomegranate and tahini. I wanted to explore more of the food of the Middle East and of course the politics that come with it so I did some reading.

As my appetite is now back in action following the hyperemesis episode, I’ve decided to amass a collection of Middle Eastern cookbooks. Yotam Ottolenghi’s new book Jerusalem is out this year, so I’m already looking forward to trying to recreate some of the recipes. I say ‘trying’ because I collect cookbooks merely to look at the pictures and dream about what I’d love to cook. Heck, Nigella Lawson is still sitting on my dining room sofa brandishing her whisk. Unfortunately I don’t have the ‘skillet takes’ (ha ha), the time, nor the patience to cook these often complex dishes, then clear up the mess. The mess is definitely the worst because no matter how hard I try, there are trails of breadcrumbs and dribbles of sauce everywhere. I did try making tabbouleh a few years ago but it ended up swimming in olive oil as I put in double what I should have.

One of the reasons why I love Israeli, Lebanese and Palestinian cuisine is the vast array of vegetarian dishes which would be just as appetising to carnivores. I’ve always loved the flavours but never had the opportunity to explore it in depth. And chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi actually care about non-meat eaters, celebrating the wonders of exotic vegetables and spices. As I write this, I’m trying to cobble together another tabbouleh. I highly recommend watching Jerusalem On A Plate and also urge you to read up on this delectable cuisine which is bursting with flavour –

What’s your favourite cookbook and why? Can you recommend any to add to my collection as I may have missed some?

Pic: my attempt at tabbouleh

Back to school?

I love a good writing course. I’ve been on quite a few in the last few years including two run by Spread the Word and taken by the brilliant Maggie Gee, two Cornerstones residential ones with the brilliant Lee Weatherly, and a bunch of others here and there, not always with such brilliant tuition.

The trouble is that after a while, I started to realise that the same topics were coming round again and again; plot and characterisation, dialogue, endings, and, almost always, how to pitch to agents and publishers.

It started to feel as though I was covering ground that I was already familiar with, and although I was no expert in any of it, I didn't need to hear the same advice all over again.

So I stopped looking out for them.

But I'm starting to wish there was something out there for me. A course for when you have a certain level of experience,  are maybe even already published, just to help brush up on skills and keep your writing as sharp as it can be.

In many professions, career development courses are a job requirement. My husband is a criminal lawyer and must undertake twelve hours of training every year in order to be allowed to continue doing his job. Doctors, nurses, teachers, librarians....they and many many others all have to take training courses to help them stay on top of the professional world they move in. I wish there was something similar for writers, too.

I don't want to do asomething as intensive as an MA or a PhD. An Arvon course isn't something I could do until my children are a bit older.

I’d just like to take the occasional course that was tailored to my own level of experience.

What do you think, Strictly readers? Do such courses already exist?

Apply Within

Position:        Writer

Hours:          24 per day, 7 days per week, 52 weeks per year... you get the idea.  Yes, even whilst you sleep and shower and… other bathroom/ bedroom related activities.

Salary:            Let’s not get ahead of ourselves now.

Duties:           Mainly writing. (And predominately writing stuff that people are going to WANT to read – pay good money to read and love so much that they will tell their friends and their family and in return make money for the publishers of your book, your agent, and, somewhere along the line, maybe even you [see *salary above]).

                        Oh, you’ll also have to keep on the paid work.  The one that allows you to pick up scintillating tidbits of gossip from colleagues and turn them into workable plots and believable characters.  Because otherwise how will you pay for the fuel that keeps the keyboard and screen working? And eat. Hmm?

Qualities:       Over-active imagination from birth.  Tendency to read a lot, write a lot and make a lot of stuff up – whilst not necessarily allowing imaginary stuff to escape mouth (unless cruel boys/thuggish girls deserve it, and actually, maybe not even then, unless you want to get a severe telling-off from the Head for being melodramatic) (in front of said bullies) (making it worse) (somebody stop me, I’m whittering).
                        Ability to construct sentences; to spell words correctly (or use of spellchecker) and some grasp of grammar.  Humour, intelligence, desire to connect with invisible audience and above all, *capacity to remain unruffled in the face of limitless rejections from agents (initially) (rejections will become ‘bad reviews’ if/when published).

Okay then, *thick skin will do.

Experience:   A smattering of the following would be helpful: 
  • Betrayal                        
  • First Love
  • Childbirth
  • Bullying
  • Divorce
  • Marriage
  • Death
  • Good times
  • Better times
  • Bad times
  • Worse times
  • Rejection  
  • Invisible friends
    Makes you wonder what sort of eejit would even THINK about applying for a job like this, doesn't it?!

The Elevator Pitch

"Once upon a time, in a far away land, where the streets were paved with gold, there lived a lady writer called Amelia. Her cat, Puss in Boots had made friends with the local Emperor, who liked to walk naked through the town. Her best friend Rapunzel had been imprisoned in a nearby tower and lived her life waiting for a faithful prince to come and rescue her. In the garden of Amelia's house, the house she had bought from Jack's mother, a cutting of a beanstalk leading towards the sky often echoed with the sound of overhead giants.

Sometimes, Amelia felt like she was living in a strange fairytale..."

It's a given that fairy tales have a happy ending. It's more or less understood in chick lit that the girl will get her man and in a tale of good versus evil that good will win out. So spinning a yarn on paper, should be simple. Easy peasy.

The reality is that we writers have many moments of being in the horrors. Days, weeks, spent wondering what the hell we are doing.Times when we doubt ourselves, tell ourselves to stop this madness and move on - do something else with our time. If I had a pound for every time I felt those feelings, it would provide (at least) a part time income. If I had a pound for everyone who looked blankly at me saying 'You're a writer, have I heard of something you've written?' only to follow it up (before I've had a chance to reply) with 'I've thought about writing a book, they say everyone's got one in them, don't they?'

Yes. 'They' frigging do.

So it must be a cinch really, this writing lark. After all, everyone's got a book in them.

Well I've had three actually. All of them pretty steep learning curves in this apprenticeship. But if I'm honest, I can now see their faults clearly and before/if I embark on another novel, I'm determined to try one extra thing I haven't previously done - Whats that? Answer in one to three lines what the story is about... I now believe every novel should have a succinct elevator pitch - saying exactly what the story core is. A pared back pitch from which everything else hangs, the bones without the meat - you get the picture. What is the book REALLY about?

For example, in the case of my opening paragraph:

Rapunzel A beautiful young woman is trapped, then, realises she already holds the means of her escape in her hands.

The Emperors New Clothes - A vain powerful man is conned by people who know his weakness.

It's easier to do with fairy-tales and of course it can always be done after you've read a novel you love. It is however not easy to do before you write one, or even during the structured writing process. It's different to theme. You have to pare the layers away to get to the story core. I could write a book about love, identity and healing friendship - all wonderful themes, but if asked to elevator pitch it to Steven Spielberg in one line, I'd probably say 'It's about a friendly alien who lands on earth and needs to find a way home'.

So what's your current WIP really about? Be it a short story, a poem, a novel, could you have that short succinct reply ready if you met Le Spielberg in an elevator and he asked you that question. Or, despite what I now think, does it even matter?

For the journey...

We writers need all the support we can get on what can be a lonely journey. No wonder we join writing communities and writing groups, sign up for writing classes and follow writer’s blogs. It helps to know that others like ourselves are out there, rooting for us, encouraging us, teaching us and supporting us. The tribe of writers is a vast one, spanning the globe and almost every age-group and circumstance.

So as we embark on this new year, I thought I’d write about the resources which have been most helpful on my own writer’s journey. Perhaps you’d like to add your own.


The Artist’s Way – Julia Cameron
This is the most brilliant resource to really help you focus on your creativity. Especially good if you like a structure. Its combination of a 12-week plan, daily Morning Pages and walking and a weekly Artist’s Date are excellent for restoring your own confidence in yourself as a creative person.

Becoming A Writer – Dorothea Brande
Written many decades ago, this is still seen as a definitive guide to becoming a writer.

The Way We Write – Barbara Baker
A collection of fascinating essays by writers in many different genres about their writing practices.


I love The Complete Book of Novel Writing (everything you need to know about creating and selling your work) - Writers Digest – a vast tome which is made up of essays by writers, each focussing on a different angle of the novel-writing process. Really good on the craft of writing.

Stein on Writing - Sol Stein is fabulous. Stein is both an editor and a successful novelist and he Talks Sense. His other book on growing a novel is also great.


This one’s a bit controversial. Self-Editing For Fiction Writers - Browne and King is the Marmite of the editing guides. I found it helpful. Judge for yourself.


The Resilient Writer (tales of rejection and triumph from 23 writers) – Catherine Wald
This cheered me up during the hard times.

The Writer’s Book of Hope – Ralph Keyes

The Sound of Paper and The Right to Write – Julia Cameron
In these, Cameron is very open about her own writerly rocky patches and how she copes with the hard times.


From Pitch to Publication – Carole Blake
Written by the founder of literary agents Blake Friedmann. Gives a good overview of the process of submitting from an agent’s point of view. Not sure about her advice about long synopses, but if you’re subbing to her, you know what you need to do!


Marketing Your Book – Alison Baverstock
Wanna Be A Writer We’ve Heard Of? – Jane Wenham-Jones


WriteWords Writing Community
A great online resource where writers can get together, let off steam, learn, be critiqued and where several well-published authors are experts and are extremely generous with their time and advice. Free for a month’s trial, then £20/35 per year.


The Hilary Johnson Author’s Advisory Service
I sent off my first three chapters, synopsis and cover letter and received a very helpful and encouraging report.

Have heard good things about them. They also occasionally have competitions which are well worth entering.

The Writer’s Workshop
Again, heard good things. And they will look at your cover letter by email for free, or at least they used to.


NAWE (National Association of Writers in Education, aka The Writers Compass)
Used to be called Literature Training. An excellent, free guide to opportunities for writers – courses, classes, jobs etc. You only need to sign up with them and they’ll email you updates every couple of weeks.

Arvon Foundation
I’ve never been on an Arvon course myself, but pretty much everyone I know who has has returned singing their praises. Expensive, yes, but they have the very best tutors and also offer bursaries.


A friend was kind enough to post me the Guardian Masterclass supplement on How To Write Fiction – a really, really excellent publication which is now available as an e-book for less than £3: definitely worth it.

So that’s my personal list of resources. Would love to hear yours.

And wishing you all a creative, productive and successful writing year from all of us at Strictly.

Happy New Year Everyone!

May the next 365 days bring happiness, health, and writing success to us all.