Monday, 25 April 2011

The Simple Things in Life

It is often the simple things in life that give the most pleasure. (Admittedly, the picture of a plastic jug may be confusing you at the moment! Let me paint a picture.)

Unusually, for a British Bank Holiday, the weather has been amazing - blue skies, sunshine and a gentle breeze. For part of the weekend, I've been on Uncle duties. Now, I could have entertained my nephew by taking him to a theme park, or a tourist attraction. But instead, we placed a large plastic box on the patio, filled it with water and then threw in some plastic bottles, jugs and a few balls too. Oh ... and then I found the water pistol!

For several hours, a water fight ensued and we were all soaked through. Despite it being only water, having someone chase you with a large jug of water is guaranteed to have you screaming and laughing around the garden, whether you're two-and-three-quarters, or 40 something. And a thoroughly drenched Uncle appears to be a very funny sight to a young nephew!

So, what has this to do with writing? Well, over the weekend, a student was explaining about the difficulty she was having with her writing. It had been several months since she'd been able to write anything and, whilst she had a few ideas that she wanted to develop for some magazines, whenever she sat down to produce an outline for them, she found herself getting stuck.

If it's been a while since you've done any writing, instead of working on what you think you should be writing, do some completely different writing. Write for pleasure - go back to the simple basics. Don't sit at your desk trying to come up with an outline for a magazine article, or a short story. Take yourself off somewhere nice - with a nice pen and notebook, or a laptop computer. Go to your favourite cafe, or pub. Don't buy a coffee, buy a Iced Caffè Mocha, or whatever else you fancy. Treat yourself! Then make yourself comfortable, and people watch. And jot down what you see.

Don't worry about what you're writing - just write. Enjoy the pleasure of simply tapping away on a laptop, or running a pen along the lines of your notebook. Remember what it is like to simply write. Remember what it is like to write simply. Don't edit. Don't analyse. Just write. Take pleasure from watching the words appear before you as you describe your surroundings. Whether it's watching your fingers press those keys, or enjoying the feel of the nib rolling against the paper, enjoy the action of writing. There's no official market for these words. No one else will read these words, except you. You are simply writing for you. 

Rekindle the enjoyment of the simple things in life.

Good luck.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Meet The Editor of Psychologies Mag - Wednesday 20th April 2011

This has just been brought to my attention - apologies for the short notice - but if anyone is in London (Covent Garden) on Wednesday 20th April (6pm to 8pm), there's an opportunity to meet Louise Chunn, editor of Psychologies magazine. And because the deadline is fast approaching, ticket prices have dropped to £10.

Click on the picture to see a larger version with more details. If you'd like to book a place, or require further details, then email: Stephanie Barker at

I know Psychologies is a popular magazine with students and readers, so if you're in the area, it could be a useful £10 spent!

Good luck!

The Writers' News Q&A Panel

At the York Festival of Writing there was a Writers' News Q&A panel comprising:
  • Donna Cornden - editor at Piatkus
  • Beverley Birch - Commissioning Editor at Hodder Children's Books
  • Hannah Westwood - Agent at Rogers, Coleridge and White
  • Piers Blofeld - Agent at Sheil Land
  • Jonathan Telfer - Editor at Writers' News and Writing Magazine.
Here's a summary of the snippets of information these wise people passed onto us.

  • For editors in publishing houses, many find pitching a new book that they really love, to the sales team, is like entering the Dragon's Den!
  • Some agents said they take on one new writer for every thousand manuscripts they read.
  • Some editors said that they take on one agent-submitted manuscript for every three to four-hundred agented submissions! (Combine these last two statistics together to ascertain the realities of getting a novel published!)
  • The editors felt that e-books could be the saviour of publishing. The fact that e-books are so easy to buy (for whichever device you choose to read it on) means that impulse purchases are more common with e-books.
  • The e-book market in the USA is about 12 months ahead of the market in the UK.
  • In America, more than half of all the books published are self-published, than trade published.
  • Authors have got to do more to market their books. Beverley Birch said that Hatchette has a small marketing department covering 4 imprints (2 fiction and 2 non-fiction). It's not a lot of staff to go around the many, many books that are published. 
  • Authors should be encouraged to build links with book reviewers.
  • If an author is going to blog, try to have something to say, rather than merely regurgitating something from the book. Readers expect a blog to promote a book, but to add value to the book's content.
  • Producing an e-book is not as simple as saving your text to PDF format and uploading it. Publishers have found that each of the different e-book readers have different formatting structures, which means that the publisher has to produce a different e-book file for each different format of e-book reader (which means that page breaks and line breaks are in different places too - this causes complications for books containing tables or illustrations, for example.) Producing a PROFESSIONAL e-book takes time and money. Publishers are concerned that authors who upload their own texts into e-book format (such as Amazon's Kindle) and then price them very cheaply - at say less than £1, or even free - are devaluing the e-book market for ALL authors, including the professional ones.
  • Writers are encouraged to follow publishers on Twitter.
So, as you can see, there are some interesting points there. You may, or may not, agree with some, or all, of them, but it is a snapshot of the sorts of things publishers and agents are trying to get to grips with at the moment.

Good luck!

Monday, 11 April 2011

Agents ... And Their Secrets

Continuing my feedback from the Festival of Writing at York, I thought I'd share some secrets that a couple of literary agents gave us during a packed Q&A discussion. On the panel were agents from the following agencies:

  • United Agents
  • Ampersand Agency
  • Greene & Heaton
Here's what they had to say:

  1. Agents handle a variety of genres, they don't specialise. This may come as a shock to some of you, after all, we're often told that we should submit our historical novels to an agent who likes historical novels, rather than one who represents a lot of authors who write about romantic cosy crime. What the agents on the panel said was that they are generalists, not specialists. The important rule was to read their submission guidelines on their websites. If these state that they don't like historical novels, or children's fiction, then don't send it. However, just because they represent a lot of chick-lit, it doesn't mean to say that they wouldn't be interested in an historical novel. Which leads me onto my next point.
  2. Agents don't know what they do want to see, but they know what they don't want to see. Get it? In other words, if an agent says they don't want to read children's fiction, then they don't want to read it! But, if you were to ask an agent what sort of novel they are currently looking for, they wouldn't be able to tell you because they won't know until they start reading it!
  3. Despite the fact that many agents are generalists, they do like to see a cover letter that demonstrates some research has gone into an author's submission. When approaching an agent, name them in your cover letter. Don't submit your novel or non-fiction book to an 'agency' - send it to a specific person. Explain why you've picked them.
  4. It's common practise for a potential author to submit 3 chapters and a synopsis of a novel to an agent. Most agents on the panel said that they read the chapters first and then, if they liked them, they then read the synopsis.
  5. If you have a curriculum vitae of your writing achievements, include it. Agents said that they did find this useful. But don't think that agents are only interested in writers who've had something (articles, short stories, etc) published before. Agents are interested in anyone with a good novel or non-fiction book!
  6. All agents agreed that at the moment, their pet hate is initials in names! They want to know the full name of whoever is sending their work to them. So, no more JK Rowling, VS Pritchett or PD James! Tell agents your Christian name!
  7. More and more agents are accepting submissions by email now. Check their websites for guidance.
  8. Agents expect potential authors to be tweeters and bloggers!
  9. Don't say that your novel is in the style of [insert favourite author's name], instead, state which genre your novel is in, and then name some of your favourite authors.
  10. An author won't know it, but when an agent begins reading a submission and they find themselves thinking, "Fred Bloggs at HarperCollins, might like this, Freda Bloggs at Transworld would definitely be interested in this, and Ivor Bigchequebook at Hodder likes this sort of thing," that's when an agent becomes interested. In other words, agents really know the editors at the publishers. Really know them. They know their likes and dislikes. So, when they read something, the more editor names that pop into their head who they think might like your text, the more excited the agent becomes. 
Good luck.

PS - It's currently the London Book Fair, where agents and publishers are busy trading and negotiating deals. Agents are working (even) longer hours than usual, so if you have a submission with an agent at the moment DO NOT contact them to find out how things are going. They are not in the office. And when they get back into the office they'll have all of the paperwork to deal with from the work generated by the fair. In other words, avoid getting in touch with them until mid-May at the earliest!

Monday, 4 April 2011

Embrace Your Failures

The opening speaker at the York Festival of Writing was David Nobbs, novelist and creator of the successful Reggie Perrin character. His speech was frank and honest. He spoke about his writing life and was upfront about his failures.

As writers we face failure on a regular basis. Perhaps we sit down to write an article, short story or novel scene, but for whatever reason, the writing doesn't flow. Perhaps we send off our writing, only to have it rejected. Perhaps we send off a series of email pitches and hear nothing back. If any profession has any experience of failure, it's writing!

But David Nobbs was quite clear - every writer needs failure. Without failures, we cannot appreciate success. Often, it is failure that spurs us onto our successes.

Before David Nobbs had the success he did with Reggie Perrin, he'd had a go at writing a situation comedy set in a lighthouse. He told us that he's analysed the popular situation comedy, Steptoe and Son, and realised that the characters were trapped by their circumstances. So, make a couple of characters as lighthouse keepers and keep them isolated on their own in a lighthouse and you have people that are quite literally trapped. It didn't work and a second series wasn't commissioned.

Nobbs explained how difficult this failure was to come to terms with. But it inspired him to write something else. And along came Reggie Perrin.

There are a couple of quotes I want to share with you. David said:

"Accept that you will write good stuff and that you will also write bad things."

"If a day's writing isn't working, then go and do something else - cricket, the pub - anything. BUT DON"T DO THIS TWO DAYS RUNNING!"

I think both statements are valid. Even the most famous of writers don't write perfect prose every time. In fact some of it may be pretty naff! But, of course, we only see the good stuff of their writing, whereas we see both the good and the bad that we write!

And on those occasions when the words won't flow, it seems pointless sitting there trying to force them out. Getting up and doing something completely different can help to stimulate the creative juices. Although, as David says, don't stay away from your writing for too long. Writers are supposed to write!

Often, when we write something and send it off, we have an idea of how it will succeed. An article will be accepted and published in a magazine, a short story will win a competition, a novel will be snapped up by a publisher. When what we envisage fails to happen, we perceive it as a failure. However, every piece of writing we produce helps us to develop and grow as a writer. Even if that piece did not succeed as we intended, it still helps us to progress along our journey of being a writer.  Without tasting the bitterness of rejection, we don't appreciate the sweetness of success.

David Nobbs finished his talk with, "When you write, enjoy it, because at least one person has!" And next time a piece of writing fails to achieve the dreams you held for it, just remember that the writing has helped you to grow as a writer, and your next effort may just be the success that you dream of.

Good luck.