I recently finished listening to the audiobook, and now understand why everyone’s been recommending it to me. It’s laugh-out-loud funny (you might want to avoid listening to it on your daily commute) – but also frequently shocking, occasionally upsetting and has a political message. Adam is now a comedy writer, script editor and performer – and it shows. This is Going to Hurt was a comedy show before it was a book.
But before all that, Adam was a doctor. The memoir documents his six years as a junior doctor between 2004 and 2010. Once he no longer needed to keep his medical paperwork, he began clearing it out – but kept his ‘reflective practice’ notes – which form the basis of the book.
There was some discussion at this year’s audiobook-heavy Quantum Conference about when it makes sense for an author to read their own work. Memoir was highlighted as an example of where this can work well, with the right author. Adam is one of those authors. His delivery – even (especially) the footnotes – enhances the experience.
We had a flavour if this during the session, when Adam read a couple of extracts. To avoid spoilers, I shall just call these ‘Kinder Surprise’ (which was received with much hilarity); and ‘Upsetting Patient Diagnosis’ (which wasn’t).
There is considerably more light than shade in the book. Nonetheless, I arrived at the Book Fair the previous day a bit discombobulated, as I’d been listening to it on my way in and had just got to the ‘…and that’s why I’m no longer a doctor’ part. The ‘…that’s why there are no more jokes in this book’ part.
Adam was spotted by a publisher at the Edinburgh Fringe, when This is Going to Hurt was still s a show. Chris Doyle saw it in 2016. He says: “For the first 55 minutes the audience laughed – and then this thing happened at the end, and I’ve never seen such a dramatic reversal.” His colleague Francesca Main had already seen show earlier in year and wanted to turn it into a book. Yet Adam initially left the serious ending out of the show in previews. People enjoyed it, but he had some feedback that it didn’t really have an ending. “It did, but I didn’t want to talk about it,” says Adam. “Six or seven years had elapsed, and I had never really talked about it. The first time my parents knew about why I left medicine was when they read in it hardback.”
It has an ending now. It gets serious, campaigning even – and ends with an open letter to the Health Secretary (who, at the time of writing, is still Jeremy Hunt). The book lures you in with the comedy – then hits you with: ‘right, now I’ve got your attention, THIS is what I actually want to say.’
I wouldn’t have published the book if I didn’t want to affect a bit of change.
– Adam Kay
Adam was initially motivated to write a memoir by the treatment of junior doctors in the UK. They were coming under fire from politicians at the time – being accused of being greedy and in it for the money. Anyone who has read the book cannot possibly believe that characterisation of junior doctors – and that’s the point. Adam may not be able to influence politicians but, by better informing the public, they are less likely to swallow government propaganda. He thought that: “If people knew what [being a junior doctor]meant, hour by hour, no one in their right mind would agree with what they’re being fed by politicians.” He adds: “I wouldn’t have published the book if I didn’t want to affect a bit of change.”
What is a memoir? And what is a ‘memoir that matters’?
These elements – an immersive memoir with a message, which is communicated with a lightness of touch and freedom of form – is part of a growing trend. They are books that are entertaining, emotional and informative, written by someone who’s done something extraordinary and has something to say about it – and they do something to affect change in society. This is a trend that you need to be aware of if you want to write a memoir.
Chris Doyle opened the session by asking each panellist to name a memoir that matters to them. Their choices were:
Rosamund de la Hey: Educated by Tara Westover. It’s a combination of personal story/journey, beautifully written, with enormous heart. In other hands it could have been a misery memoir – in which case I wouldn’t have been interested. It’s the quality of the writing and the context that caught my attention. Tara was brought up in an extreme Mormon family in Idaho – and ended up with doctorate from Cambridge. As bookseller, it’s very easy to get it across to customers. It’s a dream sell, like Adam’s. As an ex-publicist, I think it’s easier to market non-fiction than fiction – because you have more ‘hooks’.
It’s easier to market non-fiction than fiction – because you have more ‘hooks’.
– Rosamund de la Hey
Cathryn Summerhayes: My Mad Dad: The Diary of an Unravelling Mind by Robyn Hollingworth. It’s a personal diary by young woman who had the start of very good fashion career in London when she got a call to say father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She decided to move back and become a carer. There are lots of ups – but there’s also the tragedy of realising you’re losing the person who raised you. It matters because our understanding of mental health – depression, degenerative illnesses – is currently in the spotlight. It’s a problem for the NHS and our ageing population.
Adam Kay: At the moment I’m reading lot of memoirs that DON’T matter – people keep sending them in – and not everyone has an interesting story. But one I can’t stop thinking about is Cathy Rentznbrink’s The Last Act of Love – an extraordinary story about her brother who’s involved in a traffic accident and is left in a ‘persistent vegetative state’. On the face of it’s a harrowing misery memoir – but it’s told with an extraordinary lightness, and it’s funny. It stuck with me.
All of these fit Chris Dolye’s two key criteria that define a memoir:
Fluid in form. A memoir is not the cradle-to-grave account you might expect in an autobiography or biography. It’s more a focused slice of life. A memoir can be fluid in form, about a small area, attached to a particular topic. It moves around more. For example, Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk is about grief – getting over the death of her father by training of a goshawk – but it is also interspersed with a biography of T.H. White.
Written by extraordinary ordinary people. People who write a memoir are not celebrities or famous people. They are extraordinary ordinary people. They’re doing something really amazing but not somebody who already has an audience, such as a world-renowned actor. In the case of The Secret Barrister, even the editor doesn’t know who the writer is. What maters in account of daily life in court.
Cathryn Summerhayes agreed that memoir used to be more autobiographical, but is now more fluid. It has changed. Rosamund de la Hey cited Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death as something with a very fragmentary structure – but the form gives license for that to work.
People writing memoirs are extraordinary ordinary people.
– Chris Doyle, Picador
Extraordinary ordinary people is key to the total immediacy of the genre. We may think we know about being a doctor, a barrister or a carer – but a memoir gives the opportunity for somebody to explain that world to you from the inside.
The real difference, according to Doyle, is that this new genre is about having something to say. It’s all well and good that it gives an insight into world of junior doctor, barrister etc. – but it’s more than just prying in and vicariously seeing what someone else done. It’s taking us into a world but seeking some kind of change – which can be small-scale human-to-human change, or more societal change. Adam Kay’s is a perfect example – complete with a letter to Jeremy Hunt. Two things are key:
No sugar-coating. In This is Going to Hurt, we get the full blood, sweat and tears – among other bolidy fluids – and see things playing out in real time, such as Adam waking up on Christmas morning having fallen asleep in his car. In My Mad Dad we see Robyn not being able to communicate with her father that mother is dying too.
“It’s really immediate, in your face,” says Summerhayes. “By not sugar-coating it we’re all becoming activists because it motivates us to want to see change.” We’re being asked: Do you realise how bad it is for junior doctors? Do you realise how bad the legal system is?” Doyle agrees: “That openness, opening of the self, emotional honesty, is new.”
Overcoming the resistance to write a memoir
Adam felt comfortable on stage, telling 150 people a night what he thought of Jeremy Hunt – but initially resisted the invitation to write a memoir. He had something to say – but didn’t feel he was able to say it. “I’m not the sort of person who writes a book,” he says. “I’d read lots of books about how to write a book – and they all said you have to read lots and lots of books. I don’t, so I felt unqualified. It took a long time to get over that.”
I’m sure this is an anxiety that many of us have – but Adam’s experience is a lesson in going your own way and telling your own story in the way you want to. It helps that he can write, of course. “These opportunities don’t come along often as an agent,” says Summerhayes. “What sets it apart from many submissions is he’s an incredibly good writer. And I’m sucker for diaries.”
Changing form from stage show to book had it’s challenges. The structure is different in the book to the stage show, as it explains the different roles and levels of seniority – house officer, senior house office, registrar, consultant. There is also an opportunity to explain in more detail than a 70-minute show allows, through the use of footnotes – which are done especialy well. And people want to know the detail. Adam credits his agent with having a huge input in the creative process from first to final draft. “The outtakes were spectacular!” she says.
If you want to write a memoir, you need to get over these anxieties – but it clearly helps having a supportive, creative team around you.
Marketing a memoir
Memoir offers a greater than usual opportunity to involve you as an author – because it is about your own life. You are the ‘product’ as much as your book. Adam spoke at a dinner after the Scottish Booksellers Association conference. This was a slot of only three minutes – but the format suited the book well. “From that moment it became a chain reaction,” says de la Hey. “As a bookseller we’re given hundreds of proofs, and we simply can’t read them all. To get ‘cut through’ is key.”
Adam also did a ton of work to promote the book. It helps that he had a show before the book – and he’s been the length and breadth of country twice over – and treats every event with same respect. As an author, you have to work hard at getting the word out about your book, including using social media. Adam is “flying the flag because he has a cause,” says Summerhayes. “I didn’t want to be the reason the book failed!” says Adam.
That ’cause’ is what should make marketing a ‘memoir that matters’ easier than some other books, though. It’s genuine. “It’s not every author who can hold their book up with pride and say ‘this is my story and this is why I wrote it'” says Summerhayes. It’s why there’s been a diminishing in sales of ghosted memoirs. They just don’t feel authentic – and authenticity is what readers want.
What is the future of memoir?
A couple of questions from the audience touched on the future of memoir.
Q: You said memoirs are becoming more fluid – how do you see them changing more?
Chris Doyle: From an editorial point of view, it’s the freedom of it – you can almost do anything you like. For example Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk would sound like a mess in most editorial meetings – but it’s extraordinary. The more of these books that succeed in different ways gives us more confidence. The only criteria is: can the writer pull it off? Cathryn Summerhayes: Beware of the trend to over-share on social media. A lot of these books are 100 pages that have enormous impact. The biggest fear when reading submissions is: are they salacious? Are they overplaying terrible things? It’s the same with literary fiction – you don’t want it to be over-written.
The only criteria is: can the writer pull it off?
– Chris Doyle, Picador
Q. With the rise of #TimesUp and #MeToo, are you expecting to see more survivor stories – such as Helen Walmsley Johnson’s coercive control memoir Look What You made Me Do – and does that bring with it another raft of potential legal issues?
Cathryn Summerhayes: I’m seeing a ton of that in submissions. I have to think about what’s going to work in a crowded market. There might be 30 titles in the window, all of which I want to read; if there’s another 50, will I want to read them too? I’ve been offered a lot of medical memoirs – but have only published two, and one of those was by a vet. I need to know: why are they telling them? Have they enough of a reach to be important to a bigger, more general readership? It has to be something unique. Pubishers are publishing fewer books – and booksellers are selling fewer books. Rosamund de la Hay: There’s finite shelf space, so the selection process is quite brutal. It’s usually about the quality of writing, combined with the story. It may sound obvious, but it’s true. Chris Doyle: From a legal point of view, as a publisher you’re not trying to silence anyone’s story – but if it goes wrong you could be on the line for a lot of money; so you have to walk the line between freedom of expression and corporate responsibility.
It’s about the quality of writing, combined with the story.
– Rosamund de la Hay, President of the BA
As with any genre, it doesn’t pay to ‘write to market’. All you can do as a writer is write what you want to write, write it as well as you can – and hope that someone else wants to read it. Authenticity is key, and your unique voice is what people want. But this new trend, this sub-genre of ‘memoirs that matter’, means that we have greater freedom than ever to tell our own stories in our own way. The only requirement is having something to say – and being able to say it well enough.
Six ways to write a memoir that matters
Here are the takeaways I got from the session, which you can apply to your own memoir writing:
Agenting is best thought of as a partnership with the client: working together to get published, to build an author’s or illustrator’s profile and career.
It might seem fanciful to extend this partnership approach to publishers, but we do all have a collective interest in the future of a successful publishing industry. But if it is a partnership then it is one with the author at the centre. From the author’s perspective the initial interest is in finding an agent and securing the first deal. It is assumed that the rest will then fall into place and the agent’s work is done. But this is just the start.
There are decisions to be made: the material to submit, the offers to accept. The size of the advance is only one aspect; we might be looking for a multi-book offer. A multi-book deal may seem the ideal outcome: it brings more money up front and gives the comfort and security of a long-term commitment. But, on the other hand, books that have been partially paid for yet are still to be written can start to feel a like a millstone around the neck.
We are looking for the most convincing commitment from the publisher
Rather, we are looking for the most convincing commitment from the publisher and that often means having a ‘champion’ within the publishing house. However, the commissioning editor’s choice will be challenged along the way and the book might not be picked up as the publisher had anticipated either by retailers, reviewers, or by overseas publishers. Nevertheless, we need the editor and her team to stay focused and back the book through all its stages. For the publisher this is a commercial gamble and not a literary competition; some brilliant books don’t sell initially, or perhaps don’t work in the market at all – it doesn’t make them any less brilliant.
Being published throws up new questions and decisions to be made: how much editorial work the publisher wants and whether this is acceptable; the timing of publication and its implications; the cover, which the agent /author is sent and might love or loathe; the launch plans; the request to meet booksellers or the sales team; or (more alarmingly) the fact that nothing much seems to be happening.
Authors need to try and understand how the industry works
Authors need to try and understand how the industry works. The agent will tell them what is normal, inevitable, or completely unacceptable, and will try to sort out misunderstandings, demand more action from the publisher, or ensure the author is informed of promotion plans. And occasionally this will mean explaining to the author the difference between what publishers say and what they really mean!
Decisions on the exploitation of the subsidiary rights, either by the publisher or, if retained, by the agent, may need to be taken quickly. The first translation rights may be sold before the book is published, but if a book doesn’t immediately take off they can be picked up later, often on the basis of a sales ‘story’. To encourage an overseas publisher to look again at a title we might use impressive sales figures at home, great reviews, short-listing for prizes (and winning them!), and the purchase of the film rights (not just an option). Alternatively, when the next title is published, perhaps more successfully, the backlist will need to be revisited and hopefully exploited. Genres come in and out of fashion, so a backlist title might merit a second outing if the prevailing fashion starts to look on a particular genre or style of artwork more favourably.
Of course, there might be film or TV interest predicated on the title being a successful book on which investment and funding can be raised. Book sales inspire confidence in the investor, as it is perceived to have built a brand or fan base. A good deal of the agent’s work in these areas is about decoding the interest. Just because a screenwriter or producer phones from LA does not mean that they have financial backing, are reliable, or right for the project.
The questions and decisions pile up and the agent is there to advise and handle them. Sales figures need to be interpreted – authors often ring me to say that their editor is very excited about the sales of their first book – but the numbers don’t always seem to relate to those bandied about by the press and they will often ask, ‘is this good?’ An author shortlisted for prizes and possibly winning some may come under pressure from the publisher to blog, tweet, build a following, write a new book, even write a series.
Meanwhile, another publisher starts to make flattering overtures but the author wonders: is this the moment to switch allegiance from her first publisher? Can she write for both? Will they conflict – or can the two strands of work be kept separate? On the other hand there may be silence and the book doesn’t get the attention everyone hoped for, and the author wonders if the publisher even wants the second contracted book. Or, having signed up and had the first book published in a series, the book’s ‘champion’ in the publishing house leaves, or moves job and the author feels bereft.
The fixes might not be easy, the answers not welcome; they may require a re-assessment and re-boot of the author’s career. It isn’t just a simple sequence of contracts and books from one publisher coming through in easy succession: progress isn’t always linear. Building a career, creating a profile as a writer or illustrator, and earning an income, are sometimes in direct conflict.
If all works well, an author’s relationship with her agent will see her through the ups and downs of a publishing career. Hopefully the success of that first deal happens over and over again, each time taking on a different complexion. As the author’s profile rises and the number of books published increases, so the deals become more complex and inter-related. By now there are obligations and relationships with publishers, which have to be managed.
When editors and publishers change and move, the agent provides continuity
It is for this reason that the longevity of the relationship with an agent can have so many benefits: when editors and publishers change and move, the agent provides continuity. Authors and illustrators do change agents, of course. I have clients with backlists elsewhere, and it does make it harder to piece together an accurate history. The agent can’t sell translation rights having re-launched a ‘classic’ if she doesn’t know where it has been published before.
The work should make you happy, make you proud, or make you rich
I conclude by paraphrasing a publishing executive’s words, which apply equally to an agent taking on new talent; that you should publish a book for at least one of three reasons: the work should make you happy, make you proud, or make you rich. But who among us knows the publications that will be huge successes? If we did, there would be no remaindered books, and not all books can top the bestseller lists. What we do know is what makes us happy and proud – and when it makes us money as well, then we have a publishing industry that works for us all.
Learn how to get published and meet authors, agents, editors and self-publishing experts on our How to Get Published masterclass in London on 24th February 2018.
Want to write more in 2018? Follow Chris Smith‘s five golden rules to set a writing goal you’ll stick to.
4 minutes to read
You might have a burning idea for a novel, something half-finished you’re determined to complete – or a blog that you know you need to update more regularly. Whatever it is you want to write, you’ve decided, 2018 is the year that you finally want to kickstart your creative project.
Amazing! But when research shows that 92% of all New Year’s resolutions rarely make it past January, how can you make sure your writing resolution sticks? The first step is having a really great writing goal.
Writing goals are super-important in the pre-writing process. Having a goal gives you a sense of direction and something to work towards. If you don’t have a goal then you don’t have anything to aim for you can start off in the wrong direction. Setting a goal also helps you think about the future – and neuroscience tells us that this releases chemicals in the brain like dopamine and oxytocin and makes us feel happy and creative.
But some goals are better than others – some are great and others, not so good. We’ve helped thousands of people set writing goals using our digital writing coach and these five golden rules for setting goals work.
1. Make your writing goal specific
The first step in achieving any New Year’s writing resolution is to give yourself a target to hit.
You’ll need to make your writing goal measurable in some way. Think about how you’re going to achieve that goal – if it’s a large goal you need to break it down further into small steps. Do you want to write a certain number of blog posts over a period of time? Write a certain number of words each week or spend a certain length of time per month?
Make your goal as specific as you can. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself: “How will I know that I’ve completed this goal?” If you don’t know, you’ll need to make your goal more precise.
2. Give your writing goal stakes
A good writing goal is personal to you and has stakes attached to it. This means that there needs to be some consequences if you don’t reach your goal and there needs to be some benefits if you do.
If there are no consequences or benefits attached then you’ll struggle to care whether or not you reach it because… well, what does it matter? And that means that you will lose motivation.
One way to give your goal stakes is to imagine yourself into the future and make a list of the benefits of meeting your goal – and the drawbacks of not meeting it.
Think about your life in 2019. How will your life have changed after meeting your writing goal this coming year? Will you have increased your career chances, improved your business? Will you feel more fulfilled, creative and happy?
3. Your writing goal must stretch you (but not too much)
Your New Year writing goal needs to energise you but it also needs to be winnable otherwise you’ll just lose motivation. It’s good to be ambitious but if you’re too ambitious – you risk falling at the first hurdle.
So, don’t get carried away. Try to get the balance right. Set a goal that stretches you in some way but is also realistic.
Saying that, don’t make your goal too easy to achieve either. If you think your goal looks a cinch to complete then you’ll probably just get bored along the way.
An indicator of a good goal is you want to achieve it – but you’re not 100% confident you can. Setting a goal that excites you is a good way to keep you motivated.
4. Schedule it in
Our research among thousands of writers indicates that planning in the time to write matters far more than the amount of time you allocate to writing.
It doesn’t much matter so whether you write in daily chunks – or whether you binge write to a deadline or whether you block out a portion of your day, week or month for writing – the key is that your writing time must be identified in advance – in whatever way works for you.
The very worst type of routine comes when you ‘try to find the time’ to write at the last minute. Not only is this a waste of time, it’s also a psychologically and physically depleting approach that will grind you down!
5. You’ve got to want to write it
Let’s face it, you’re going to be spending a lot of time with your writing project – so you’ve got to feel committed to it in some way. You have to feel an enthusiasm and passion for the project – or that you’ve just got to do it!
When you’re thinking about what you want to achieve in 2018, try to pick a goal that energises you in some way. Something that fires you up and you’ll get a kick out of achieving – or that if you don’t achieve you’ll be kicking yourself this time next year.
Things to remember
Vague goals lead to vague outcomes. You have to know when you’ve reached your goal, so get specific.
It’s good to feel a little scared by your goal. Not 100% sure you can make it.
‘Trying to find the time’ to write is depleting. Plan in the time in advance and prioritise your writing time.
A goal without a challenge is just like work. Stretch yourself. Make your goal winnable, but not a sinch to achieve.
You’ve got to want it. You have to really want to (or have to) write your project. Otherwise you’ll lose motivation.
To build a career as an author you need to know how to get published as well as how to write. Jon Reed shares some pointers to help you navigate the process – and know what to expect.
17–20 minutes to read
You’ve written a book. Now what? To take the next step and get published, your main options are to go down the traditional route of getting an agent and landing a publishing deal; or to self-publish. This article focuses on the traditional route to publication, and concentrates mostly on fiction.
How to get published – at a glance:
Identify your genre
Showcase your writing
Find a literary agent
Prepare your materials
Submit a query letter
Get a publishing contract!
1. Identify your genre
What sort of book have you written? (Or are you writing, or do you plan to write?) And which other books is it similar to?
Your book may not fit neatly into an obvious genre such as science fiction, historical fiction, crime or romance. Your genre may simply be ‘literary fiction.’ Or it may be a combination, such as sci-fi-horror or romantic comedy.
Think carefully about how to categorise your book – because agents, publishers and bookshops will. But do this when you’re preparing to submit to an agent or publisher – not while you’re still writing.
Genre is a sales tool. When your book is finally ready to be read, it will help it find its audience. Genre is something you should be aware of because you will, at some stage, need to explain what yours is to a prospective agent or publisher. You may have a clear idea of this from the start. You may be writing crime fiction because you love crime fiction and it’s what you read all the time. If not, don’t worry about it – yet.
Never try to second guess the market. Don’t write vampire romances or political thrillers just because that’s seems to be what’s selling at the moment. By the time your book comes out, the market will have moved on. And, unless you truly love the genre you’re writing in, you will soon get bored and your lack of enthusiasm will show. Write the book you want to write and you’re more likely to get published.
Stephen King, in his classic On Writing, says the time to really ask yourself what your book is about is when you’re writing the second draft. Then, if a theme suggests itself, you may want to enhance it in the re-write. You will also have a clearer idea of the genre your book fits into then, if you haven’t already.
Another thing Stephen King says is read. Make sure you read books in your chosen genre, or books that are similar to what you are writing. Read recent books, especially debut fiction, in your area. This will help you keep up with the ‘competition’ and the latest publishing trends. You can use that knowledge later to demonstrate your market awareness to a prospective agent or publisher – as well as to hone your work.
In addition to genre, think about which books – or even film or TV – your book might be considered similar to. A comparison will help you get published because it will help you pitch your book. It is a shorthand that helps communicate what your book is like – quickly, without anyone actually having to read it. Agents, publishers and readers want this.
Agents want to be able to say to a publisher: “This author is the next Karl Ove Knausgård,” or “It’s a bit like The Da Vinci Code but set in 16th Century Japan,” or even “It’s Stranger Things meets Adrian Mole.” If you want to get published, think of an “X meets Y” that could describe your book.
Publishers want a hook to hang your book on. An editor will first need to convince his or her colleagues to publish a book – partly with sales figures of similar titles. And a publisher’s sales rep will want to be able to say to bookshops: “You took X copies of our title Y. This is a similar type of story by an exciting new author.”
Readers want reassurance that they will enjoy book Y because they enjoyed book X. This what drives Amazon’s “People who bought X also bought Y” algorithm. But you’ll see it in blurbs too. For example, the Amazon.co.uk description for A Man Called Ove says: “Perfect for fans of Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project and David Nicholl’s US.“
None of this means you have to copy someone else’s story or style. Your unique story and individual ‘authorial voice’ is exactly what agents, publishers and readers are looking for. But people in the book trade will always want to compare you to other authors and titles. Publishers always want something the same (because it provides a reassuring track record) but different (because they need something fresh and new to sell).
2. Showcase your writing
If you want to get published, first publish yourself. That might seem odd advice for an article on how to get published traditionally. But I believe building your online platform is an essential first step. Agents and publishers today want to know what ‘platform’ you have – i.e. what audience can you already reach. Start building your platform whether you’re just starting to write, or have a manuscript ready to send out.
Use the following approaches to help you develop your craft as a writer, raise your profile – and, ultimately, get published.
Start a blog
I used to lecture creative writing students on social media marketing – and always advised them to start a blog now, rather than waiting until they got a book deal.
It’s something that paid off with, for example, Leisel Schwarz – who went on to become the ‘High Priestess of British Speampunk.’ Create a well-written blog and it can attract the attention of agents. If nothing else, it proves you can write for an audience.
A blog can also become a book: Emily Benet’s Shop Girl blog caught the attention of Salt Publishing and became Shop Girl Diaries – and even went on to become a pilot for a sitcom.
It works for non-fiction too – in fact it’s even more important for building authority and an audience in a niche topic area. This blog helped me get published: my first traditionally published book, Get Up to Speed with Online Marketing (Pearson Business, 2010; 2013). If you regularly blog about a subject, your blog could become the starting point for a non-fiction book. A book based on blog posts is often called a ‘blook.’
Write on Wattpad
Wattpad is an online platform that lets you upload stories and read thousands of others for free.
Use it to serialise your work – either something you’ve already written; or something you write as you go, released a chpater at a time, adapting and reacting to readers comments along the way (is one character unexpedly popular? Build up their part!)
Some authors reach millions of readers on Wattpad. Agents and publishers spot emerging talent on the platform too – and will be impressed by the size of your audience as well as the quality of your writing. Emily Benet wrote a novel called Spray Painted Bananas on Wattpad over four months, posting two chapters a week. She soon got half a million hits and a two-book deal with HarperCollins – who published the novel as The Temp.
Self-publishing can help you get published traditionally. This is another way publishers talent-spot: by looking for successful self-published authors. The key word here is successful. If you self-publish and don’t sell many copies, that could actually harm your chances of becoming traditionally published. But if your self-published book is a huge success, you’ll have publishers beating a path to your door, and no trouble getting an agent.
This happened with such self-publishing successes as Amanda Hocking, John Locke and Kerry Wilkinson. Sometimes a publisher will offer you a deal for print-rights only, and let you keep your existing digital rights. A win-win if you only want to self-publish ebooks, but gain a wider reach in bookshops.
And there’s no reason you can’t do both: become a ‘hybrid’ author by traditionally publishing some books and self-publishing others, according to what you think is right for each book. Nick Spalding and Emily Benet are examples of authors who take this approach.
Write short stories
Show that you’re serious, develop your craft and get a publication credit in the process by writing short stories. Many novelists started out by writing short stories for magazines. While the market for short stories may be smaller than it once was, there are still plenty of outlets to submit to. You won’t necessarily earn much money – but you will get published. You’ll gain a writing credit for each story published, and build your writing resumé / CV.
If this all seems a distraction from the novel you want to write, remember that a short story can become the first chaper of a novel. This happened with Fiona Melrose: her short story The Fox was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 as one of the winnners of their 2014 Opening Lines competition, and helped her get published. It became the starting point for her first novel Midwinter, which was published in paperback in September 2017.
Use any short stories you get published – especially if they win an award – in your submission to agents as evidence of your ability to write, and increase your chances of getting an agent. List them in your query letter (see Step 5) – but don’t send them unless you’re asked.
Most publishers will only accept submissions via a literary agent. So, in order to get published, your goal is to get an agent, rather than a publisher. Your agent will submit your work to publishers on your behalf. And there are many other benefits to having an agent. They will:
Know the market
Have the right connections in the publishing world, and know who to approach
Get the best deal for you
Handle contract negotiations on your behalf
Manage your rights. You will retain your rights to e.g. film and these can be sold separately. If you sign a contract with a publisher without having an agent, your publisher will usually also own film and TV rights, and you’ll only get 50% of any proceeds.
Handle media requests for you, including invitations to write press articles
Take a fee of around 10% of your earnings. This is a good thing. Because their fee is based on your earnings, there’s an in-built incentive for them to get you the best possible deals – and you’ll end up earning far more with an agent than without one.
Some (but not all) agents also offer editorial support. They will critique your work and offer feedback, to help you get your final draft into the best shape before submitting to your publisher. Some even have in-house editorial staff to do this. If this is important to you, find an agent who will support you in this way – but don’t automatically expect it.
Start by researching agents to find one you think will be a good fit for you and your book, and who you’d like to represenent you. Then prepare your submission materials, as set out in Step 4.
Start with one of the directories of agents and publishers. The main ones are Writer’s Market (USA) and Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook (UK). These are invaluable reference books for when you’re ready to approach agents, and include details of each agent’s submission policy and what sort of books they’re looking for. Take a look at agents’ websites too, to see who they already represent.
Pick the right agent for you and your book. You might want an agent with the backing of a large organisation. Or you may prefer a small independent agent with lots of time to invest in you. Or you might aim for the best of both worlds with a new agent in an established agency who is starting to grow his or her own list of clients. You might want an agent who will offer lots of constructive feedback on drafts and help you develop as a writer; or you might not be bothered about that and just want one who can get you the biggest advance.
But don’t approach anyone yet: prepare your materials first.
You will soon start preparing your query letter (see Step 5 below). But not yet. Work on your supporting material first: your synopsis and sample chapters. Together these might be called your book proposal. They are the essential documents you need to get published.
Because you need more than a letter. If an agent is to assess whether you have potential as a writer, have something they can sell to publishers, and if you might be a good fit with their list, you’ll also need to send them your stuff. You won’t necessarily send this with your query letter (this depends on each agent’s submission policy); but even if you just send a query letter first, you’ll need to have the following material pre-prepared in case the agent is interested and wants to see more.
I’m more used to writing synopses and treatments for screenplays. But the same principles apply. Write out everything that happens in your novel, in the order in which it happens, in the present tense. Keep it to no more than two pages, and don’t hold anything back – let us know how your story ends! You may have intriguing twists, turns and reveals in your novel that you want to hold back from the reader – but don’t do this with your agent or publisher. This is no time to be worrying about spoilers: they need to know everything that happens.
You can still build tension in the way you write your synopsis, and keep the reader intrigued. Do this by only revealing plot points at the correct time in your synopsis. So don’t say: ‘…and he later turns out to be the killer all along’ in your opening paragraph. Save that information until the part of the story when it is revealed to the reader. Then your synopsis can be as engaging and satisfying as the full book.
The purpose of your sample chapters is to flesh out some of your synopsis and, importantly, to demonstrate your writing style. An agent wants to see that you can write – or at least have potential. A couple of sample chapters is usually sufficient.
However, while a synopsis + 2 sample chapters may be typical, it’s not what every agent wants. The research you did in Step 3 will reveal not only which agents might be suitable to submit to, but what they want you to submit. Some might want one chapter, or 10,000 words. Some might want to see the whole thing.
There is a bit of a trend for agents wanting to see the entire manuscript upfront. Indeed, many articles..
You choose an agent as much as an agent chooses you. But which one is right for you? Kirsty McLachlan looks at what different types of agent can offer.
5 minutes to read
You’ve written your book, spent months, possibly years writing it and you need to find an agent to represent it for you. An agent works for you – on your behalf – and the relationship should be a two-way street. As much as an agent chooses an author, so an author must choose an agent. As an agent, I’ve heard endless stories of mismatches, relationships that haven’t worked out and unhappy authors who simply feel ‘unloved’ by their agents. So how to choose an agent?
Firstly, research, research, and research. Spend time on this and you will ensure that the submission list you draw up will fit your book. There is no point sending your book to every agent in London. Get Writer’s Market (USA) or the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook (UK). These will give you the address, website and crucial details of every agent. They are your first port of call, but you also need to investigate at a deeper level – look at the agents’ websites, look at the books they represent, try and hear them talk at events and festivals – and get a sense of who they really are.
Subscribe to The Bookseller magazine, which will keep you up to date with deals and movements of agents. The industry is always in flux – agents move to different agencies and agencies are being bought by other agencies etc – so you need to be on top of the industry news.
Getting an agent is like playing the dating game: you need to work out exactly who would be right for you and your writing. I’ve identified seven types of agents – there are others (and some combine some or more of these ‘types’) – but it will help you to work out exactly the ‘sort’ of agent you want:
1. The young and hungry agent (YAHA)
The YAHA is always on the lookout for books, they have small lists but are building them so you won’t get ‘sorry, I’m not taking on clients at the moment’ rejection letters from them. They are out there and busy in the publishing world – speaking at festivals, events and literary evenings. The YAHA is on Twitter and whirling around the social media networks, chatting to authors and to other YAHAs. Any authors they take on will be given lots of attention and they are always thinking long term. YAHAs are in touch with all that is new – they are the ‘new kids on the block’ but the better for it.
2. The more established agent (MEA)
The MEAs have been around since the days of long lunches and deals on napkins. They know how to make a deal in five minutes, on the street, and made with a handshake. They have Power – their authors have all written five books at least and sold in high figures. The MEA isn’t really looking to add to their list. They have genuine friendships with publishers and can actually get an editor on the phone – a rare thing these days. When they submit a debut, it makes an impact, it becomes a MEA book and editors sit up and take note. On the down side, MEAs have assistants, secretaries and rights people, all who stop you getting to the agent in question.
3. The ‘can do’ agent (CDA)
The ‘can do’ agent, or the ‘360 degree agent’, can quite simply do stuff for you. They are working on all levels and can see the bigger picture, of which your book is just one part. So they can sell foreign rights, US rights, Film/TV, stage, can arrange speaking engagements and newspaper columns. With publishing deals getting smaller, CDAs make their commission from other streams of income. CDAs are sometimes called the New Model Agent. As income from books shrink it is worth keeping your eye on these.
4. The corporate agent (CA)
The CA works within a pack of agents. A pack can be more powerful that a sole trader (below). They work as a team within the pack and have lots of support. The CA recognizes that publishing is a business and can be run as one. A good CA runs a tight ship, efficient and slick. They have nice offices. A bad CA is a dinosaur and gathers other dinosaurs around them – they move slowly and hold onto the mast as the ship slowly goes down.
5. The sole trader agent (STA)
There are many STAs in the agency world. It’s knowing who to choose – and who not to. Their lists are generally small, they have the ability to be nimble and change according to changes in the industry. Often STAs are expanding their lists steadily – they take on few writers but they really feel passionate about their list. They don’t have any support but can multitask – you will always get them on the phone and face-to-face meetings are a given.
6. The nurturer agent (NA)
Nurturers are wonderful if you want lots of input in your book. They can edit (they have often been readers or editors in a publishing house) and will go through your book line by line. Do you want that sort of input and care and attention? Editors are demanding manuscripts to be as polished as possible now so nurturers are coming in their own. They can ensure a proposal is brilliant and that novels really work – even if it takes four or five drafts to do so. NAs have small lists and spend a lot of time on each client.
7. The deal-maker agent (DMA)
DMAs are frighteningly prolific with their deal making. These are the agents who appear again and again in The Bookseller listing their deals done that week. They speak of high six-figure deals and move with the kind of speed of a jaguar on course for their prey. Publishers are naturally wary of DMAs but can’t leave them alone. Be afraid: be very afraid. If you want your book sold – and for lots of money – these are the ones to go to. Don’t expect lots of cosy phone calls, coffees or one-to-ones though.
Choose an agent that’s right for you
Draw up a wish list. What do you want your agent to do for you? Do you want lots of editorial input or do you want someone who will really make the high level deals? Do you want to work with a sole trader or within part of a bigger organization? Be focused with your submissions and they might just hit the right spot.
It may be a cliché, but bestselling writer Elizabeth Haynes doesn’t care: she has bought a writing shed. The bestselling author of Into the Darkest Corner and Revenge of the Tides wanted a shed after seeing one owned by fellow crime writer Julia Crouch. ‘I saw it and thought: I’m having one of them,’ she says pointing through a sunlit sitting room window to the part of the garden where it will be.
Haynes and Crouch, however, have more than sheds in common: both are successful graduates of National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWriMo to the cognoscenti – and used the internet-based 30-day writing challenge to write novels that have gone on to be bestsellers.
I wrote my first full-length book thanks to NaNoWriMo.
‘I wrote my first full-length book thanks to NaNoWriMo,’ Haynes explains over tea and cake – for me, not her, she’s on Lighter Life, she says. We are in the sitting room of her modern semi in rural north Kent. It feels cosy and familiar, very different to the dark, vicious world of her imagination. The only hint of that is a long bookshelf along one wall, which is crammed with crime novels, many with broken and bruised spines.
She started using NaNoWriMo in 2005 and completed two manuscripts before hitting pay dirt with Into The Darkest Corner (Myriad Editions), her 2011 bestselling début. The writing challenge enabled her to make the leap from short fiction to something more sustained. ‘I think with our busy lives it’s easy to see writing as a self-indulgent hobby; with careers, families and other demands on our time it’s hard to justify spending time writing just for fun. NaNoWriMo gives you a reason to do just that,’ she explains of why she used it.
As with her unpublished NaNoWriMo novels, Into The Darkest Corner began with the germ of an idea and a couple of ‘nebulous’ characters. ‘I’m very careful not to over-think the plot before I start.’ In this case the idea was domestic abuse. She sounds surprised as she recalls: ‘I thought there is a possibility that I could do something with this as I had a beginning, middle and end that I liked.’
It’s hard to justify spending time writing just for fun. NaNoWriMo gives you a reason to do just that.
And what a beginning! A blood-spattered scene sees a woman bludgeoned to death in a ditch. From there Haynes unfolds the story of Catherine, whose meticulous planning had enabled her to escape an abusive relationship. But a phone call reveals her suffering is not behind her. What follows is a plot that twists into a gripping and believable climax that works as genre crime thriller and, thanks to its intelligent portrayal of domestic violence, book group staple.
Given its success, it may be surprising that a multi-million pound imprint wasn’t behind it. Instead it was in the vanguard of a new fiction list from tiny Brighton-based independent Myriad Editions. As a result it was not supported by the advertising clout usually associated with bestselling crime débuts. It didn’t matter: readers loved it, quickly loading it with five star reviews on Amazon UK. Within a short time the book had received over 600 reviews, almost 500 of which awarded five stars – it has now reached 700 out of 900. Amazon recognized its quality by naming it the 2011 Book of the Year.
Key to the novel’s success, says blogger and book prize judge Rhian Davies, is Haynes’s voice. ‘I think her distinct and unique appeal lies in her voice,’ Davies explains. ‘It’s like having your best friend sitting next to you telling you a story.’ Victoria Blunden, Haynes’s editor at Myriad, agrees the author’s knack for creating sympathetic female leads is at the heart of her success. ‘Elizabeth has a knack for creating strong female characters that the reader cares about, and building tension so that the pages turn themselves.’
Originally sent the manuscript with a view to providing feedback, Blunden recalls that even at early draft stage it was obvious the book had potential: ‘The pace of Elizabeth’s storytelling, and the way she’d used the structure of the book to fuel the drama, were completely captivating, and she’d handled her subject matter – the terrifyingly real depiction of an abusive relationship and the attempt to live with the aftermath of trauma – with real sensitivity.’
I explore the characters and unravel the plot by re-writing, rather than planning it out in the first place.
The quality of this early draft reflects what Haynes sees as both the strengths and weaknesses of NaNoWriMo. While writing is quick, she finds the editing process ‘tortuous’. ‘I know of several non-NaNoWriMo authors who complete manuscripts slowly, over a year or more, and then only need to do maybe two drafts with some copy editing to finish off.’ Not so Haynes. ‘I end up writing several drafts, each time exploring the story further – and this takes about a year. I explore the characters and unravel the plot by re-writing, rather than planning it out in the first place.’
The strength of the ‘get it on the page at any cost’ approach is that you relinquish editorial control, letting the words flow in order to meet the daily target. Summing up a struggle faced by most writers – including this one – she adds: ‘Before I tried NaNoWriMo, all my attempts at writing were brief because sooner or later it would feel pointless or I would run out of steam.’
I find the best ideas come to me when I’m writing fast.
NaNoWriMo liberates Haynes, enabling her to write from her Id, unhindered by self-criticism. ‘I find the best ideas come to me when I’m writing fast and don’t have time to say “that’s silly” or “that won’t work” – I just do it, knowing that if it falls flat, I can take things in a different direction when I’m editing.’ She adds: ‘By sacrificing quality over quantity – after all, it’s only about the word count – your creativity is liberated and you write without worrying about anything else.’
Risk-taking with plot is not the only beneficiary from this unfettered method of writing a first draft. Haynes is adamant her leads have strong voices because she does not ‘over-think’ her characters at this stage. ‘It takes a few days or a week of writing for things to gain momentum, and then I find the voices of the people I’ve created become clearer. That’s when it really gets exciting.’
I suspect her continued use of NaNoWriMo is also about not over-thinking the reception of each new book now she is tied into a five-book deal with Sphere. She admits as much when she tells me using the site for Revenge of the Tide, her second published novel, was ‘very different’. The greatest pressure with the book came during editing. By then her début was accelerating up the charts. ‘I suddenly realized that I had an awful lot to live up to,’ she recalls, pulling a face of mock fear, followed by a warm smile.
The novel, though different in character to her début, retains her trademark believable female lead, flawed in character and judgment. ‘I was anxious to make Genevieve quite different to Catherine,’ she says of Tide’s narrator. That is an understatement: Genevieve supplements her wages from a job in marketing by working weekends as a pole dancer. A less than reliable narrator, she is all ambition and no insight, which means the story unfolds at a seductive pace as she becomes enmeshed in a world that operates on the fringes of criminality and exploitation.
For Genevieve money is everything, it buys her the life she desires (in this case one refurbishing a barge on which she can live without ties). Haynes subtly creates a character more complex than might be expected in a genre thriller, one who is fearless, but also remarkably naive – she goes from selling financial products to selling her body with the blithe rapaciousness of a reality show contestant who disrobes for Nuts. As Genevieve narrates, it is easy to believe the ethical creep that leads her from a bit of a laugh on a Friday night to consorting with gangland figures better avoided.
For both books, Haynes drew on her experience as a police analyst for Kent Constabulary. The day job involves analyzing crime patterns. Finding links – geographical and temporal – and patterns of crime helps detectives crack cases and commanders direct resources. It also provides her with an intimate knowledge of crime, though she emphasizes her novels are fiction.
‘It’s more subtle than that,’ she says of how the job helps her write. Into the Darkest Corner was inspired by reports of domestic abuse she read for work. ‘I was very struck by how I had probably had a stereotype of the kind of woman or couple who would be involved in domestic abuse. I had that perception thrown out of the water. There are lots of reasons why women and men stay in abusive relationships. They are not always the most obvious ones.’ It is a neat summary of what happens to Catherine.
I still have to pinch myself that I am writing and published and have five books that I can write.
With Revenge of the Tides she used her understanding of organized crime. The actuality of the novel came from first hand research of pole dancing, including a weekly class. ‘The warm up nearly killed me.’ We are both laughing: I’m trying to imagine Haynes – more WI than Spearmint Rhino – writhing round a pole.
She also met women who worked in the industry. An active listener, she quickly recognized the disconnect between the excuses women use for taking the job – to pay university fees or buy homes – and their inability to escape it once they have bought their dream. ‘It’s very difficult to give up that kind of money, even if they don’t want to go back to it.’ There is a note of sadness in her voice: not judgment, but sympathy for freedom compromised by money. ‘To leave and feel sad about going back means there has to be an element in your mind that says this is not a career choice.’
Haynes has been luckier. Next February Myriad publishes her third novel, Human Remains, written during NaNoWriMo 2011. It will be, she promises, ‘really grim and dark’. ‘It is another standalone, but all three fit together nicely as psychological thrillers.’ After that she is tied into a five novel deal with Sphere in the UK and HarperCollins in the US.
The first of the series is a reworking of her second NaNoWriMo novel, and sounds experimental in a good way. ‘I intend to use an awful lot of source text: witness statements; forensic reports; emails. The idea is that the reader has the same access to source documents that the investigators have and can solve it along with them.’ She pauses when I ask how it feels to be one of NaNoWriMo’s most successful graduates? ‘I still have to pinch myself that I am writing and published and have five books that I can write,’ she replies. ‘I mean where can it go from there? It’s amazing.’
Elizabeth Haynes’s Guide to NaNoWriMo
NaNoWriMo gives you the ultimate deadline pressure
It is a tremendous motivational boost by writing alongside hundreds of thousands of other people, all around the world, with an element of competition as well as support
It has motivational tools there to keep you going – discussion boards which allow you to pose plot problems, ask research questions (someone out there is bound to be an expert in whichever random situation your character has found herself)
Participants organise impromptu ‘sprints’ through social media in which you write for an agreed period of time, say 10 minutes, and then compare word counts
It’s great for meeting other writers in your local area. I now have some great writing friends I can meet with all year round
It’s fun writing at speed, allowing your characters to do unexpected things and setting yourself seemingly impossible writing challenges
If you’ve ever had the urge to write a novel, but never had the time; or if you thought it was pointless doing it because the likelihood of publication is so small, then NaNoWriMo is for you.
UPDATE: Elizabeth Haynes’s latest book Never Alone is out now.
One of the joys of narrative non-fiction is that I write anywhere and everywhere. I wrote freehand in notebooks while suffering from potentially fatal altitude sickness in Tibet. I scribbled, in an altered state of consciousness, lying on a bamboo mat under the moon having swallowed ayahuasca, in the Amazonian jungle.
I have made notes just before walking on fire and just after walking on fire. I have pulled out my famous Lamy pen while a tiny plane climbs through the clouds and I’ve volunteered to jump out. I’ve smuggled tiny notebooks in sponge bags onto Vipassana retreats (where writing is forbidden) and hidden in the loo to record the day. I’ve taken time out in the middle of a tantric sex workshop, while all kinds of interesting things are happening, to record an impression, a sensation or a feeling.
I’m told that what is unusual about my writing is that it is like a letter from your best friend. And indeed that is how I view my reader. I love writing so for me anywhere and any time is a good place. In the examples above I know that I will never be able to write, for example, about the experience of a ten day silent retreat if I begin the writing at day 11. I have to write it while I’m there. It’s like the difference between live TV and a dry recording.
Another example was writing in a tiny B&B in Northern India the night before interviewing His Holiness the Dalai Lama. When I wrote ‘I can’t believe I’m meeting The Dalai Lama tomorrow’ (I had been reading about his life and about Tibet for a year by then) I know that my readers had no trouble believing me. And of course it was all in the present tense. Imagine the difference between that sentence and ‘I was very excited about the fact that I was to be meeting The Dalai Lama the following day.’ No comparison. So I write where I am.
“I have adventures and then I write about them with the same enthusiasm you may sit down to tell a great tale to someone you love.” – Isabel Losada
Also I’m not one of those poor fiction writers (I feel very sorry for them) that has to discipline themselves to write a certain amount every day. I have adventures and then I write about them with the same enthusiasm you may sit down to tell a great tale to someone you love. The only exception is that I could never write anywhere noisy. One hundred percent concentration is required.
The idea of writing is shop windows as I have now done in Waterstones in London and in W.H. Smith in Paris – only works if you have something very simple to do. It’s just not possible to write anything except emails when there is any distraction. So ‘Author, in residence, in window.’ Isn’t really true – I’m there but not writing books at the time.
So where do I write? Anywhere at all that is quiet.
There is another question though. Where do I copy out the notebooks? Where do I edit? Where do I re-write? Only one place.
Develop your craft with these 10 essential books for writers.
8 minutes to read
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” – Stephen King
Stephen King may have been talking about reading fiction when he said that. But sometimes it pays to read books about writing too, starting with the one this quotation comes from: his own bestselling On Writing.
Books about writing are a great source of inspirational soundbites and quotations to be shared on Instagram (see the @publishingtalk Instagram account for some examples). But they are also a source of practical advice to be absorbed and used to develop your own craft. Furthermore, many lift the lid on the process and offer an insight into your favourite writers’ working methods.
Try the following for starters. In the first of an occasional series on books for writers, here are some of the books I have enjoyed and found useful. But I’m sure you have your own favourites. Please add your recommendations in the comments below.
On Writing is probably the most-quoted book on writing. Stephen King’s critically lauded, million-copy bestseller shares the experiences, habits, and convictions that have shaped him and his work. Immensely helpful and illuminating to any aspiring writer.
“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”
– Stephen King, On Writing
What you will learn: What it means to be a writer.
Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite authors, and she too has her own book ‘on writing.’ But this isn’t so much a book about how to write, as about what it means to be a writer.
“What is this writing, anyway, as a human activity or a vocation, or as a profession, or as a hack job, or perhaps even as an art, and why do so many people feel compelled to do it?”
– Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead
– A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, by Ursula K. Le Guin
What you will learn: To critique your own work.
It’s unsurprising that so many books for writers are written by writers – and this is Ursula K. Le Guin’s. A deceptively short and simple guide to the craft of writing, it started as a course she gave to aspiring writers. Over 10 chapters she addresses the fundamentals of narrative, from the sound of language to sentence construction to point of view. Each chapter combines examples from the global canon with Le Guin’s own witty commentary and an exercise you can do solo or in a group. She also offers a guide to working in writing groups, both face-to-face and online.
“Ultimately you write alone. And ultimately you and you alone can judge your work. The judgment that a work is complete — this is what I meant to do, and I stand by it — can come only from the writer, and it can be made rightly only by a writer who’s learned to read her own work.”
– Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft
– How to Write Fiction and Unlock the Secret Power of Stories, by Scarlett Thomas
What you will learn: How stories work.
I picked this up because I had previously read Scarlett Thomas’s fiction. But she’s also a creative writing lecturer, and this thick volume is based on her years of teaching at the University of Kent in the UK.
It’s divided into two sections: Theory and Practice. The Theory section explores plots from Plato to The Matrix, from Tolstoy to Toy Story, and will help you create your own. The Practice section has creative exercises, structures, and charts. Including a chapter on ‘How to have ideas’, it breaks down the fiction writing process and shows that everyone has material to write about.
“Have you ever had your heart broken, or broken someone else’s heart? Have you ever won an argument but later realised you were wrong? Have you ever tripped over in public , or spilled wine on someone else’s carpet? … Have you ever edited your life in your head and wondered what would have happened if you’d said or done something else, or if someone else had? …If the answer to these questions is yes, then you almost certainly have what it takes to be a writer, or understand how and why other people write.”
– Scarlett Thomas, Chapter 1, Monkeys with Typewriters
– Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, by Robert McKee
What you will learn: Narrative structure.
One of the things I do these days is write screenplays, and I’ve read many books on screenwriting over the years. But I’m an unashamed devotee of McKee. I’ve been on his courses and read his bestselling book Story. For many, this is the screenwriters’ Bible.
Yet it’s not just for screenwriters. If you write novels, you too need to understand the principles outlined in this book. I know novelists who go on McKee’s Story course too. Some publishers routinely send their fiction editors on it.
If you hope to have your novel adapted into a film or TV series, it pays to think about a narrative structure that works on screen from the start. But even if you don’t, the principles outlined in this book will improve your plotting – and your writing.
“Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules; rebellious, unschooled writers break rules; an artist masters the form. Story is about eternal, universal forms, not formulas.”
– Robert McKee, Introduction to Story
– Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters, by Christopher Vogler
What you will learn: How to send your archetypes on a journey.
Another book that’s a classic on structure for writers is Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. Drawing on the depth psychology of Carl Jung and the mythic studies of Joseph Campbell, it relates these ideas to contemporary storytelling. It’s a step-by-step guide through the classic hero’s journey with examples from Star Wars to Pulp Fiction, and includes exercises that will improve your writing.
The book details seven key archetypes, including the Hero, the Mentor and the Herald; and 12 stages of the ‘journey’, including Ordinary World, Call to Adventure, Meeting with the Mentor, Ordeal and The Road Back. Vogler then puts the theory to the test in analyses of heroic journeys in five blockbuster films. See if you can apply it to your own story!
“The concept of archetypes is an indispensible tool for inderstanding the purpose of function of characters in a story. If you grasp the function of the archetype which a particular character is expressing, it can help you determine if the character is pulling her full weight in the story.”
– Christopher Vogler, Chapter 2, The Writer’s Journey
At number 7 is The Seven Basic Plots – Christopher Booker’s classic text. Using a wealth of examples, from ancient myths and folk tales via the plays and novels of great literature to popular movies and TV soap operas, it shows that there are seven archetypal themes which recur throughout every kind of storytelling.
I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler alert to tell you what they are (they’re on the front cover of the book, after all). They are: Overcoming the Monster; Rags to Riches; The Quest; Voyage and Return; Comedy; Tragedy; and Rebirth. See Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey above for more on Voyage and Return!
Scarlett Thomas, incidentally, has a chapter on ‘The Eight Basic Plots’. I guess that’s inflation for you. Hers are: Tragedy; Comedy; The quest; Rags to riches; Coming of age; Stranger comes to town; Mystery; and Modern realism.
“We shall be looking at every type of story imaginable: from the myths of ancient Mesopotamia and Greece to James Bond and Star Wars; from central European folk tales to E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind; from P.G. Wodehouse to Proust; from the Marx Brothers to the Marquis de Sade and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; from the Biblical story of Job to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four; from the tragedies of Aeschylus to Sherlock Holmes; from the operas of Wagner to The Sound of Music; from Dante’s Divine Comedy to Four Weddings and a Funeral.”
– Christopher Booker, Introduction to The Seven Basic Plots
– The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss
What you will learn: How to be a stickler.
No list of books for writers would be complete without at least one on grammar or punctuation. And this is my favourite. Lynne Truss is a very funny writer (seriously – check out her BBC Radio 4 comedy thriller series Inspector Steine). In her bestselling Eats, Shoots and Leaves she brings her trademark wit to a topic no writer or editor can ignore: punctuation.
“It’s tough being a stickler for punctuation these days. One almost dare not get up in the mornings. True, one occasionallyhears a marvellous punctuation-fan joke about a panda who “eats, shoots and leaves”, but in general the sticker’s exquisite sensibilities are assaulted from all sides, causing feelings of panic and isolation.”
– Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots and Leaves
I’ve recently discovered The Paris Review. It finds itself on a list of books for writers (rather than magazines for writers) because what I’ve actually been reading is collections of their author interviews, available in four thumping tomes, going back to the 1950s. Volume 1 contains 16 interviews, including Dorthy Parker, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemmingway and Kurt Vonnegut.
I love the style of these interviews, and their focus on eliciting from their subjects fascinating insights into their writing process. Read them to discover writing advice from some of the greats of literature – or just for the sheer pleasure of spending time in conversation with them.
“There is hardly a more enjoyable way to spend one’s time, when not writing, than in the company of so much sheer intelligence demanding the best of itself.”
– Philip Gourevitch, Introduction to The Paris Review Interviews vol. 1
– Because Your Dreams Are Worth 10 Minutes, by Katharine Grubb
What you will learn: To arrange your writing around your life.
What if you just don’t have time to write, let alone work your way through this list of books for writers? If you put off writing your novel until you ‘have the time’, you’ll never do it. But surely anyone can find 10 minutes a day? That’s why I picked up this book – the title is just so alluring…
Grubb has plenty of advice on story, plot, character, dialogue and structure – but this is also a book about how to find and manage your time. Each chapter contains a practical 10-minute excercise to get you closer to your goal. Though, of course, you’ll also need to find time to read the book…
“Let’s not be intimidated by the task of novel writing. Instead, focus on how you, in very small increments, can sculpt your novel bit by bit.”
– Katharie Grubb, Introduction to Write a Novel in Ten Minutes a Day
What are your favourite books for writers?
How many of these books for writers have you read? Are there any glaring omissions, or additional books for writers you have found useful or inspiring? Do share your recommendations in the comments below.
Don’t get too carried away with excitement and gratitude when an agent offers to represent you. Now is the time to put on your business hat and look out for these common pitfalls with agency agreements, says Kirsty McLachlan.
Hurrah! An offer of representation from a top agent has been made. Do you really need a contract with them? Surely a handshake is fine? Being an author also means donning a business hat sometimes, and ensuring that you and your work are protected. There are snakes out there in the jungle and are best avoided.
As agencies all differ – and so do agency agreements. There are good and bad agreements. Sadly, in the throes of excitement, some writers are blinded to the corrupt nature of some agency agreements. I’ve seen several agreements over the years which have tied an author up in knots even when they have tried to leave an agent. So beware!
5 things you need to watch our for with agency agreements
The following is not an exhaustive list and every agency agreement differs.
All monies should be paid through to the author within 30 days of receipt by the agent (although many agents will agree to 14 days of receipt). There may be some bank charges – especially in the case of foreign payments – but the agreement should state clearly that the author will be charged for these, if that is the case.
It is not standard practice for an agent to charge any further costs. Yet many agents do include charges for photocopying (although these should be minimal), purchase of extra copies for submissions etc. You need to be very clear what deductions will be made and whether or not you get approval over these charges prior to the costs taking place. It’s a sticky matter but I feel, given lots of submissions can be made by email these days, the days of huge postage costs have gone so there is less of an argument for agents to deduct costs.
There should be no upfront fees – reading fees or advance payments – which the author has to make to the agent. Ensure that your agent doesn’t suggest a ‘book doctor’ or ‘editor’ who has a relationship with the agent.
Agency agreements should state the commission that will be taken by the agent. This can range between 10%-20%. It could be a flat 15% for all income, or could have different percentages for income from different sales.
You should be notified of each submission. You wouldn’t have approval of the submission, but its general practice for you to be consulted.
Any agreement with a publisher should always be subject to the approval of the author. You will be the signatory – unless agreed otherwise – of every agreement.
3. Don’t give your agent power of attorney
Agents shouldn’t be able to sign contracts on your behalf. There are exceptions to the rule – such as if you are out of the country a lot but think hard before agreeing to this. And, again, there should always be some kind of letter expressing this right.
Ensure that you are not granting the agent the rights to a certain book. I’ve seen cases where an author has left an agent but that agent in question still holds rights to a book. To untie the rights at that point is a difficult matter. So ensure that the agent does not have any ongoing rights over a book unsold – or rights such as film rights or foreign translation rights to a book the agent has worked on, on behalf of the author.
What happens if, for whatever reason, the relationship between the agent and the author doesn’t work out? You need a get out clause, and this is called the termination clause. Make sure you are clear about the timeframe. Generally this is between one month and three months notice (following the letter of termination from either party). Any contract negotiated by the agent will stay in place and they will continue to receive commission on those contracts. This is a standard point but one worth understanding. No contract can be altered without the agent’s agreement.
An example of wording for a termination clause is as follows:
This arrangement may be terminated by either party to this agreement by not less than one month’s notice in writing. In the event that this Agreement is terminated, for whatever reason, both parties shall honour all existing Agreements. Any amendments to such Agreements shall only be made with prior written approval of both parties.
Agencies are businesses and can be bought and sold. If you have agreed to be represented by one agency, how would you feel about being sold as an ‘asset’? A non-assignment clause can stop this and will simply state that the agency cannot assign the rights to the agreement to a third party. This is not a standard clause but one I feel important, as more and more agencies are bought up or are joining forces.
The Agency shall not assign their role as Agent – which shall include any services rendered or to be rendered – under any agreement or any part of any agreement made by the Agency to a third party without the Author’s prior written consent.
Finally, don’t forget that both parties then need to sign and date the agreement
Finding an agent is a delight, but you need to feel completely happy with them – both on a business level and a personal one. Meet the agent, ask any questions you want to ask – however, small or seemingly crazy. Take your time to make the right decision and hopefully it will be a long-lasting relationship.
Hashtags are more important than ever – yet can still be a confusing minefield if you’re new to social media. Here are 10 of the most useful hashtags for writers.
6 minutes to read
Six years ago I wrote a post called ‘10 Twitter Hashtags for Writers.’ It was the 2nd anniversary of the #amwriting hashtag, Twitter was just five years old, and I had recently published an ebook guide to Twitter. Much has changed in the last six years. Today is the 8th anniversary of #amwriting, Twitter has matured into a stroppy pre-teen, and my ebook needs updating. Yet this has remained a popular post – and these hashtags are still used.
Hashtags have not only endured in a fast-changing social media environment, they have become more important than ever. They have since been adopted by Facebook, and especially by Instagram, where their use is arguably even more important than Twitter for making your content findable. They have become so mainstream – ubiquitous, even – that no self-respecting conference or TV show would dare convene or broadcast without announcing an official hashtag.
What are hashtags?
If you’re not yet familiar with hashtags, they are simply words or phrases used in tweets with the # symbol in front of them. Make sure you don’t use any spaces or punctuation, and they become links in Twitter that, when clicked, reveal a timeline of everyone whose tweets contain that hashtag.
The default view shows you the Top tweets using the hashtag you’ve clicked on – but you can also click on Latest in the top menu to see the most recent tweets using your selected hashtag. You can also filter by People, Photos, Videos, News and Broadcasts.
You don’t have to trawl Twitter to find a hashtag to click on – you can also simply type one into the Twitter search box, or go to twitter.com/search.
Use media in your tweets
To make the most of your hashtags, include a relevant weblink where appropriate and where space permits. Images have become more important in Twitter over the last few years too -as have videos and GIFs (short looping videos and animations). You can share video or audio files (such a a link to a YouTube video), which will play directly in your Twitter stream. These all make your tweets far more visible than just a line of text, and you will see plenty of them attached to tweets using the following hashtags.
10 hashtags for writers
There are many hashtags that are useful to help you promote your books, connect with other writers, and – well – write. How do you use them, and which should you use? The 10 hashtags for writers in that original list are still in use. So here is a lightly tweaked version of the original list, plus a few extras, with some updated examples of hashtaggery-in-use.
Click on a few of the following 10 hashtags for writers to get a feel for them and how you might use them. Note that you can use more than one at a time.
Writing can be a solitary experience, and Twitter is a great way of connecting with other writers. It’s like a virtual watercooler. #amwriting is the hashtag started by Johanna Harness in 2010 as a way of supporting writers and fostering a sense of community. Use it to tell us what you’re working on, support and learn from others, and share your experience.
Variations on #amwriting include #amediting (if you’re at the editing stage) and #amquerying (writing a query letter or book proposal). If you’re at the editing stage, let people know and ask for any advice you need.
#WriterWednesday or #ww was originally intended as a way to give shout-out to writers / suggest authors to follow, or to share writing tips. In practice, it also covers pretty much anything else to do with writers or writing too.
I use it quite a lot (on a Wednesday), and even started a weekly paper.li online newspaper called The #WriterWednesday Weekly. This generates its stories from links shared by people on Twitter using #WriterWednesday, and tweets a link to itself. Weekly. On a Wednesday.
#followfriday or #ff is used on a Friday to suggest people to follow to your followers. Ideally, don’t just include a list of @usernames – tell us why we should follow the person or people you suggest. You can do them one at a time, or include a list of people grouped together by topic or reason.
#ff can help raise your profile too, if people return the favour, or at least thank you in public. This isn’t why you should do it – but it’s an added bonus if it happens. You also use #ff to thank people for helping you in some way.
Another thing you can do on a Friday is tell us what you’re reading. This is a great way of name-checking other authors your admire, often with a picture of the book and short review.
Ideally, include the Twitter @username of the author and official hashtag for the book if either exist; and a buying link to the book. If you have an Amazon Associates account, you might even earn a few dollars (pounds, euros etc.) if people click through and buy your #fridayreads recommendation.
If someone else gives a shoutout to one of your books – whether one that you’ve written, or one that you’ve published – like and/or retweet it on your own Twitter account.
Publishers can use #fridayreads to promote books. I often see them suggesting a Friday Read that happens to be a book that they’ve published that week – sometimes also combined with a giveaway.
You can use #fridayreads to share mini book reviews – whether your own, or quoting someone else’s review.
Use #writingprompt as a way of engaging with other writers by suggesting a trigger for a story; or to look for writing inspiration yourself. Also check #writingprompts (plural), since this is used too; and maybe throw in an #amwriting for good measure!
Running a book giveaway on Twitter? Use #bookgiveaway to help people discover it. This can be used by publishers or authors. The entry criteria are usually as simple as ‘follow and retweet’ with a closing date. If you win, the person running the giveaway will usually DM (direct message) you to ask where you’d like your book sent.
You know that you should never pitch to an agent on Twitter, right? They really don’t like it. However, you should follow them, and many are prepared to give advice on Twitter. #askagent is the hashtag to use, which some agents will seek out to answer your questions. #askpub and #askeditor are variations to ask questions of publishers and editors. You can also use #amquerying to send your 140-character pitches out into the world.
Agents will sometimes announce when they’re available for questions using #askagent, with a date and time – or simply if they have a few minutes to spare!
I can do a quick #askagent while kids are in wave pool if anyone has questions?