Archive for the ‘The Ten Commandments of Writing’ Category

The Ten Commandments of Writing #8: Thou Shalt Heed The Submission Guidelines

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

It’s been a while since I posted anything in this series of posts. Part of the reason, if I’m honest, is a crisis of confidence. When you have no faith in your own writing, you feel you have no right to lecture anyone else.

However, that sort of thinking is unhelpful, and I’m going to come back to that a bit later in the series. For now, though, it’s time to pick up where we left off in the Ten Commandments of Writing. So you’ve written your manuscript, you’ve polished it until it shines, and now you’re ready to send it out into the world. So what’s next? You have to submit it.

Things have moved on quite a bit from when I first started submitting to agents and editors, back in the 1990s. In those days the submission instructions were fairly standard – the first three chapters and a synopsis, with a stamped self-addressed envelope, which involved spending my lunch hour standing in line at the post office to get my envelope weighed, buying return postage to include on the return envelope before sealing up the package, only to have it land on my doorstep a couple of days later in an envelope with my own handwriting on it.

Nowadays most submissions are made by email, but the instructions can vary widely. Firstly, you have more options, because there are far more small presses out there who are willing to look at unsolicited manuscripts, so you are not restricted to submitting only to agents. But some publishing houses might not want attachments in emails for fear of viruses. Some might have old machines that can’t deal with certain types of software so they can only accept submissions in a certain format. Some don’t like fancy fonts. In the old days of postal submissions, everything was pretty much written in courier or Times Roman. I still write all my manuscripts in Times Roman. It has a bad press in the business world these days, but I have a fondness for serif fonts that are clear and straightforward and easy to read. None of this sans serif font business where a capital ‘I’ and a lower case ‘l’ are indistinguishable (and the font on this blog rather illustrates my point!)

Anyway, here is Commandment #8, and it is important: read the submission requirements carefully, and follow them to the letter, and this is about a lot more than ensuring that the publishing house you are submitting to deals with the genre you write in. Are the instructions asking for the first three chapters and a synopsis, or the whole manuscript? Do they ask for a blurb and the first chapter that must be embedded in the email, and do not under any circumstances send attachments? Do they want the whole manuscript, in 10-point courier font, single spaced, using paragraph auto indents instead of tabs and no page numbers? Then that’s exactly what you send.

Read the guidelines carefully, prepare your submission equally carefully, and double check everything before you hit ‘send’. And then, if you’re anything like me, you check your email box obsessively every half an hour until you get a response.

But at least your work will be Out There, and that’s what counts. Good luck!


The Ten Commandments of Writing #7: Thou Shalt Not Write for Fame and Fortune

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

There’s this misconception out there that writing is a glamorous life, and that writers just rattle off a novel and sit back and let the money roll in. This misconception is enhanced by the media, which focuses on writers like J.K. Rowlings, E.L. James and Neil Gaiman, and how much money they’ve made.

It’s true that all of these people have made a good living from writing, but sadly they are the exception, rather than the rule. The BBC published an article in 2014 stating that the average full-time writer was now earning £11,000 a year, which was well down on the last survey done nearly ten years earlier. Significantly, the same article also points out that the number of UK writers working full-time had also dropped quite dramatically – from 40% to 11.5%. Every time I get a royalty statement, I get depressed. If I were to add up all the royalties I’ve received since my first novel got published six years ago, it still equates to a sum that’s less than what I earn in a month in the day job.

I know a lot of writers for whom writing is their full-time job. Most of them have a supplementary income, whether it be their partner’s income, running writing courses, or something else like an inheritance, investments or rental income. Not many of them would describe themselves as ‘well off’. Most are just about managing to get by.

Whatever your reasons are for writing, you shouldn’t be doing it for the money. By all means fantasise about being a full time writer, and maybe you might be able to make it work, but don’t go handing in your letter of resignation to the boss as soon as you get that first novel contract.

So there’s the myth busted about the fortune. What about the fame? There’s a famous quote out there – and I don’t know who it originated with – that says that it takes twenty years to become an overnight success. There are a lot of writers out there, competing with a limited reading public. I have a fantasy that I’ll meet someone at a party one day and upon hearing my name they’ll say, “oh yes, I know you. I’ve read one of your books.” It hasn’t happened yet. Maybe, if I keep on churning out the novels, I might get to that point by 2030. By which point I’ll be almost ready to start drawing my pension!

Write because you want to, write because you need to. But if you want fame and fortune, marry a footballer or a supermodel instead. It’ll be far less painful in the long run.

The Ten Commandments of Writing #6: Thou Shalt Heed Thy Critiquers

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

It has been some time since I posted one of The Ten Commandments of Writing. I am returning to this series today with the Sixth Commandment – Thou Shalt Heed Thy Critiquers.

I’ve been running The T Party Writers’ Group for over 20 years now. Various people have come and gone over the years. Some people have stayed for a little while and then moved on; others have been with us so long it’s hard to imagine a time before they joined.

Then there are others who came once, for a critique of their masterpiece, who  threw a tantrum when one or two members dared to suggest that perhaps this piece needs some improvement, instead of heaping effusive praise on it, and then they flounced off, never to be seen again. Just a tip – don’t be this writer.

The other end of the scale is the writer whose work receives a ritualistic flaying during a critique session, and they get so depressed they shove the work in a drawer and never finish it. I admit that this latter category has applied to me once or twice.

Sending your work out to a critique group takes courage. You have spent months or possibly years on your novel, sweated blood for it, gone through the usual rollercoaster of feeling alternatively like you’re an undiscovered genius or a blatant fraud, and now you have to sit there while a group of people take it in turns to tell you how ugly your baby is.

However, it is something that every writer has to learn to deal with. A common mistake that many self-published writers make is that they don’t get their work sufficiently edited. There is only so much a writer can do with their own work – you get too close to it to see the full picture. You need someone who’s not involved in it to give an honest critique.

That’s why it’s important to have beta readers and critiquers. People who will tell you honestly, and frankly, what needs improving. The problem we have in our group, though, is that for everyone who says ‘I didn’t like your character – she’s bossy and annoying’ there’ll be someone else who says, ‘I love the way this character argues with everyone and stands up for herself”.

There is a balance between listening to all the criticism and not listening to any of it. If you belong to a regular critique group you’ll get to know after a while which writers are on your wavelength, and which ones are genuinely interested in the genre that you write in. If you write cosy crime, for instance, you’ll probably find that the critique from the person who reads a lot of cosy crime is more relevant than that from the person who only reads hard SF.

On the other hand, if there are six people looking at your work and five of them make exactly the same point, it’s worth heeding it.

So this is today’s lesson. Find critiquers. If there is no ‘realspace’ writing group in your area, join an online critique group. Or start a group of your own (well, it worked for me). Once you have found them, submit your work to them and be prepared to listen when they take the time to read and comment on it. And be prepared to get your heart broken, because it’s never easy to accept criticism of your work.

But the only way to grow as a writer is to understand where you need to improve. No writer is beyond editing.


The Ten Commandments of Writing #5: Thou Shalt Rewrite

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

Whenever a writer is portrayed in a film or TV series, the process is always the same. They sit at their typewriter or PC (depending on how old the series is), banging out the words, they print out a huge stack of pages, and then they write ‘The End’ with a flourish, and proudly present finished manuscript to agent/publisher.

I know TV misrepresents a great deal of professionals, but I always want to shout at the screen at this point. I don’t know any writer who can churn off a first draft that is perfect and publishable and in need of absolutely no revisions.

Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, there are generally two ways of approaching the writing of a manuscript. Some writers start the first draft with a clear goal of getting to the end. The first draft is likely to be full of inconsistencies and plot holes, but the important thing is to get to the end of the first draft and remember that everything can be fixed in the rewrite. This is my approach. The first draft is effectively putting up the scaffolding. The bricks and mortar and everything else that is required for the construction to be solid and functional can be added in future drafts.

Then there are other writers who revise as they go. Every time they sit down to write, they review what they wrote before and they will quite often go back and polish, or revise and rewrite bits before moving on. So by the time they get to the end they have effectively got a finished product. But it’s hardly a first draft, because many changes and amendments have been made along the way.

Whichever way works for you is something that only you will be able to decide, possibly after much trial and error. The point is, revision is essential to the writing process. How many rewrites are required will, again, vary from writer to writer, and may well depend on how much thought goes into the first draft. Some writers I know spend quite a lot of time thinking about each sentence before writing it down, whereas I would rather tap into that early morning flow of words and type the first thing that comes into my head. It means I’m more likely than that more ponderous writer to re-read what I’ve written and shriek, “what was I thinking? This is complete rubbish and makes no sense”. But I know I’ve got several rewrites to get it right, so that doesn’t worry me.

Like many things misrepresented in the media, writing is not as easy as it’s portrayed on TV. And no one gets it right the first time.

And so this is the Fifth Commandment. Thou shalt rewrite. And rewrite, and rewrite again, until the manuscript is so polished it shines.

The Ten Commandments of Writing #4: Thou Shalt ‘Show’ Not ‘Tell’

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

Show, don’t tell” is a common refrain in my writing group. This is generally another way of saying there is too much exposition in the manuscript. Consider the following two sentences:

1. He was angry.
2. He slammed the door behind him and went stomping down the corridor, swearing under his breath.

They both say the same thing, but the second example demonstrates the character is angry without saying so directly.

‘Showing’ not ‘telling’ is a way of adding interest to your writing. You could open your novel by spending the first page describing your main character in detail, including personality traits, but it’s far more interesting to spread this out throughout the novel, so that the reader can extract this information for themselves. If you want to tell the reader that your character is anxious and nervous, maybe have them gnawing on their fingernails in several scenes. If a character is a chain smoker, you don’t have to tell the reader that. If the character lights a cigarette (or even several in quick succession) in every scene they are in, the reader will pick up on that soon enough.

An example of an author I think does ‘show, not tell’ well is Lisa Brackmann, who writes a series of crime novels featuring Ellie McEnroe, a young former soldier who was injured in Afghanistan. Though more or less physically recovered, Ellie is constantly drinking beer and swallowing pain killers with it, and these actions demonstrate aspects of her character quite clearly without us ever being told directly.

I think ‘showing, not telling’ is something that new writers often struggle with. It’s something that a writer gets better at the more they practise it. If you want to tell your readers that a character is untrustworthy, how would you do it? This would probably be a series of actions in which they repeatedly demonstrate that they go against their word, or betray other characters. This would be more engaging for the reader than another character declaring, early on the story, “I don’t trust Tom”.

Here ends the lesson on the fourth commandment of writing. Join me next week when we will touch on the importance of heeding the rules of grammar.

The Ten Commandments of Writing #3: Thou Shalt Not End With “It Was All A Dream…”

(Cross-posted on the Write Club blog) How many of you remember getting assignments to write stories in school? My heart always leapt with joy when that happened. Generally some people were always asked to read their stories aloud to the class. And there was always that one person who’d written some fantastic and implausible adventure, only to finish with, “and then I woke up and realised it was all a dream.”

This is another of those tropes that was probably once perfectly acceptable, but it has been done so often that it has become too predictable. A similarly over-used trope is that one where the characters are actually dead and don’t realise it until the end of the story. In spite of these two tired old tropes being over-used, there are nevertheless recent examples of both of them being used in TV shows (*cough* ‘Lost’ *cough*).

An author might decide to end their story this way to provide a twist to the tale. The problem is that it’s been used so often that this revelation no longer comes as a surprise. To me, it rather smacks of the author writing themselves into a corner and not being able to think of another way of getting out of it.

Plot twists and turns make a thrilling read, but avoid getting into a situation where you get your character into such a sticky situation you can’t work out how to extricate them from it.

For fear of sounding like a broken record, this is why plotting is important. I have read more than one novel where strange things happen to the character, and I turned the pages eagerly, wanting to know why these things are happening, only to come across the “it was all a dream” ending. I interpret this to mean the author couldn’t be bothered to think of a more original ending. I accept that much of this is personal opinion, but I have heard similar view expressed by agents, and ending in such a way puts a lot of agents and editors off any further negotiations with the author.

So here we have the Second Commandment of Writing: thou shalt come up with a better ending than “it was all a dream”.

Join me next week, when I shall be exploring the difference between “showing” and “telling”.

The Ten Commandments of Writing #2: Thou Shalt Avoid Conversations Starting with “As You Know”

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

For the next few weeks in this series of posts, I will be focusing on things that you should not do in your writing. As a disclaimer I will add that you will always find examples of these in published work. Thus proving that if you bring in a huge profit for your publisher, you can pretty much get away with anything you want. But for unknown writers, trying to get a contract, there are just some things that will put an editor off. And these are the things that I want to share with you. The things that I have learned – generally the hard way – not to do.

The trope we are dealing with today is the situation of having two characters discuss something they both already know for the sole purpose of telling the reader about it. In my writing group we tend to refer to it as “As You Know Bob” syndrome or a case of “So tell me again, Professor, how your time machine works.”

Imagine, if you will, a novel that begins with the sentence:

“As you know, Prince Edward, your father, King Henry, has been at war with the neighbouring kingdom of Ilyria for nearly twenty years,” the prince’s aide said.

There is a lot of information here, but since it is all detail that Prince Edward (presumably a major character) already knows, this is a clumsy way of relaying it to the reader. If I were to read a novel starting with this sentence, I doubt I’d get beyond that first line.

The ‘TV Tropes’ website goes into more detail about this particular literary tool, giving examples from film, TV and literature that are guilty of it. Sometimes it can work, but generally it doesn’t, and it is one of those tired old tropes that has been used so often it would put a lot of editors off if they picked up something from the slush pile that uses this. There are generally better ways to get vital information across to the reader. Perhaps one of the easiest examples to pull from popular contemporary TV is Dr Who, where the Doctor’s companion generally plays the role of the ‘Watson’ – the character who is assumed to be less knowledgeable than the audience, and therefore is the mechanism used to allow the main character (ie the Doctor) to explain things, to both the other character and the audience.

To go back to the ‘Time Machine’ example, let’s think about one of Hollywood’s more famous time machines, Doc Brown’s DeLorean in “Back to the Future”. Imagine if the conversation went like this:

MARTY: So tell me again, Doc, how your time machine works.

DOC BROWN: Well, as you know Marty, it is the flux capacitor that makes time travel possible. Let’s go over once more how it works….

In the film, this is not at all how it goes. An ordinary teenage boy plays the perfect ‘Watson’ to Doc Brown’s intellectual ‘Sherlock’, giving him someone to explain everything to. The audience learn about the time machine at the same time Marty does, when he is summoned to the Twin Pines Shopping Mall one October night in 1985. We never find out exactly how the flux capacitor works, but we don’t really need to know – it’s enough to know that it is the magical gadget that makes time travel possible. And it works.

And so there it is, the second commandment of writing – Thou shalt avoid conversations starting with “As You Know”. Join me next week when we explore the third commandment, which is all to do with how not to end your story.

The Ten Commandments of Writing #1: Thou Shalt Make Time To Write

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

Just about all writers have that encounter, sooner or later, at a party or some other social event where they get chatting to someone who asks that stock question, “what do you do?”. When they discover the answer is “writer”, the person says airily, “oh, I always wanted to write a book. If I could ever find the time.”

I’ve always believed that being a writer is not something anyone chooses to be, any more than we choose the colour of our eyes, or our skin, or whether we are left or right-handed. What we do choose, however, is whether or not to be a successful writer. And the first step in being a successful writer is finding time to write.

It’s the stock excuse for many aspiring writers: I could finish my book if only I had more time to write. I used it myself for quite a long time. My first published novel, SUFFER THE CHILDREN, took me ten years to write. I used a variety of excuses to try to explain this, but really they were just excuses. Fledgling writers find excuses not to write for many reasons. The most common, if we’re honest with ourselves I think, is lack of confidence. But taking ten years to write a book is a luxury only afforded to the unpublished writer, or ironically, the very successful. If you’re Stephen King or JK Rowling, your loyal fans will probably wait ten years for the next book, if they had to, and still be there to buy the book at the end of it. For the rest of us, it’s worth bearing in mind that there are many writers out there to attract your potential readers when they get bored of waiting for you.

The stark reality is that writers have no more hours in the day than anyone else. Finding time to write is simply a matter of ensuring you block off some of those hours for writing. Many writers, like me, have full time day jobs. Some have kids and school and hockey runs to deal with, elderly relatives to care for, yoga lessons, football practice, swimming lessons, or even a combination of all of the above. Modern life is extremely busy. But amongst all this, the writer must carve out time to write.

What works for me is getting up at a stupidly early hour and getting the early train into London. I sit in Starbucks round the corner from work, and have a soya latte and a muffin for breakfast while I wait for the NetBook to boot up. I try to get an hour of writing in before I head for the office to start my working day. I find this hour very productive, and in truth I get more done in that hour than I do if I take a day off work and write at home.

I appreciate not everyone can face getting up at 5:30am. Fifteen years ago I wouldn’t have thought I could have done it, either. But I have discovered that this is the best time for me for writing. It may have something to do with tapping into the muse before my internal editor wakes up, but I find the words flow first thing in the morning when I am not properly awake. Some writers I know carve out an hour of writing time when the kids are in bed. Some find that writing late at night works for them. The key is to find what works for you and schedule it into your routine. Block off the time in your diary. Make sure that your family members also know that this particular time is Writing Time, and you are not to be disturbed.

Making time to write in a packed life generally means sacrificing something. For me, it’s sleep. Other writers I know have stopped watching TV, opting instead to use that time as writing time. If your schedule is absolutely rammed, have a look at what you can change to fit in some writing time. If you get a lunch hour at work, can you leave your workplace and set up in a nearby café or some such to use that time for writing? If you regularly meet friends at the pub twice a week, can you cut down to one a week and use the other evening as writing time? If necessary, try experimenting until you find a routine that works for you. As I mentioned, it never occurred to me once upon a time that I could get out of bed so early. But once I got in the routine of doing so, I found it not so bad, and the thought of a nice sugary treat when I get to the coffee shop does sometimes inspire me out of bed at that unseemly hour in the morning.

But the most important thing, in order to be a successful writer, is to write, and so this is my First Commandment of Writing: Writer, Thou Shalt Make Time To Write.

The Ten Commandments of Writing: Introduction

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

Those of you who have been following this blog a while will know that I have been at this writing game for quite a while. In fact, I’ve been at it most of my life. I’ve been writing novels since I was 11 years old. I’ve been submitting my work since I was 17. I am now 45. I will leave you to work out for yourself just how many rejections that equates to, with the added note that just because I have stuff published DOES NOT mean I don’t get rejected any more. Nor does it mean those acceptances are any less sweet.

Anyway, when I got to thinking about just how long I’ve been at this game, it made me realise just how much I’ve learned along the way. And maybe I can pass on some of those things I have learned over the years to others, who may be just starting out on the whole writing/submitting/rejection carousel.

I will emphasise that I don’t have all the answers. The thing about writing is that you never stop learning about your craft. And the publishing world is a whole lot different than it was when I started out, when there was no internet and no email, and submissions had to be sent by post, with a stamped self addressed envelope, and markets had to be researched and the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook was the must-have publication for getting hold of publishers’ details.

No, I am by no means claiming to know everything about writing. If I did, I’d be making a great deal more money from it, and would be getting a lot more acceptances than rejections. But there are things I’ve learned along the way. Things that I wish I’d have known when I was starting. Things that might have led to that novel contract arriving a bit sooner than it did.

For the next few weeks, I am going to run a regular feature on this blog, featuring my version of the Ten Commandments of Writing. I am not claiming to be Moses, and unlike his mine are not written in stone. These will just be things I’ve learned along the way, that might help someone else as they try to negotiate the thorny path to publication.  These will otherwise be known as the “Writer, Thou Shalt Not” rules.

Join me here at the same time next week for more information about the first commandment:  “Writer, Thou Shalt Make Time to Write.”