Monday, 28 September 2015

If You Don't Ask - You Don't Get!

I’m currently putting together the February article for my Business of Writing column in Writing Magazine and, because next year is a leap year and we’re getting a whole extra day in which to write, I’m looking at productivity techniques.

I’ve approached a selection of writers asking for their tips, but I also wanted to get a couple of quotes from a productivity expert. One of the best-known productivity experts is an American man called David Allen, who wrote the book: Getting Things Done. (He’s such an expert he’s often referred to as a ‘productivity guru’.) And he’s sold a few copies of that book too … nearly two million copies worldwide. His Getting Things Done technique is now a multi-million dollar business for him, and he’s recently updated his bestselling book (check out the new version at:

My immediate thought was: No, don’t even bother trying to get in touch with him. His company executives will filter out his emails, the chances of him responding are practically zero. It would be a waste of time.

But the more I thought about what I wanted to say in my article, the more I realised that a few quotes from him on a specific aspect of the subject matter would be beneficial. So, nothing ventured, nothing gained - I got in touch.

Twenty four hours later, I had a reply, with some useful quotes, and he’d also sent me the link to download the obligatory author photo, which I could forward to my editor. Brilliant! 

Which goes to show two things:

1. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. 
2. His Getting Things Done technique clearly works, because he had plenty of time in which to answer my questions ;-)

So next time you find a little voice inside your head telling you not to bother - tell it to shut up and just do it.

Good luck!

Monday, 21 September 2015

Critical Comments

One of the workshops I attended at the NAWG Festival of Writing looked at criticism: how to give it and how to accept it.

As writers, one of the best ways of developing our craft is to listen to other people’s feedback, and then decide if that improves our work or not. Sometimes making that decision is easier than other times. For example, if six people all make the same comment about one particular aspect of your work then perhaps they’re onto something. But it’s not always possible to get several people’s opinions on a piece of text, and so listening to just one person’s opinion can be daunting - how much do you trust their opinion?

A good way to make that judgment is to consider what you’ve been told. The most constructive criticism is that which offers a solution (or at least one potential solution) to the problem identified. If someone says they found your introduction boring then that doesn’t really help you. But if they explain that the opening sentence was so long they had difficulty in following it and grasping the point you were trying to make, then you have something practical to work with.

Criticism isn’t about identifying faults. It’s about offering solutions and improvements to your work. And once we’ve learned how those improvements benefit our writing, we find ourselves including those tips in our writing automatically.

Something else to bear in mind is that if someone offers a solution to a problem, try it out. But if you don’t like the result there’s nothing stopping you going back to your original version. At least you tried. And if you don’t like their solution, then hopefully you’ll have learned from the process and understood why that solution didn’t work for you.

It’s also important to understand why you are seeking criticism and what you’re looking for feedback on. What is it that you need help with? It can help those offering their feedback if you can guide them on which particular areas you’re unsure of. For example, asking people if your dialogue sounds natural gives them something to focus on. That doesn’t mean they won’t pick up anything else they spot, but they will focus on the aspect you’ve asked them to.

If you do that, you’re more likely to accept some of the suggestions you’re offered. You’re more likely to see it as help rather than criticism.

So when it comes to having your work critiqued, remember three points:

1. Criticism is only negative if it offers no solutions. If someone says something doesn’t work, ask them why it doesn’t work and what steps you can take to change that.
2. Accept that seeking criticism is your desire to grow as a writer. Asking other writers for help means that you’re keen to improve your work.
3. Help guide some of that criticism by analysing your work yourself first, and identifying areas that you’re not happy with. If you’ve already self-critiqued your work, you’ll be more accepting of the solutions offered.

Good luck!

Monday, 14 September 2015

They Know Nothing!

Last weekend was the NAWG Festival of Writing at the University of Warwick, and one of the many highlights was Julian Fellowes who came to chat to us. For those of you who don’t know, Julian Fellowes is the author of a novel called Snobs, the writer of the hit film Gosford Park (for which he won an Oscar) and the writer of the hugely popular television series Downton Abbey.

The key point that Fellowes wanted to get across to us was that those in charge in the creative industry sector know nothing (when it comes to fiction). His novel, Snobs, was rejected by many literary agents, including one who told him to “go away and write something grown up.” (Ouch!) Of course, Snobs was published, and it has been translated into nearly 40 different languages, a fact Fellowes enjoys pointing out to that very literary agent every time he sees him.

When it came to trying to get film companies interested in Gosford Park Fellowes said that every UK film company told him that films exploring the British class system were of no interest to the general public any more. That was everyone’s expert opinion. Which is why Fellowes eventually sold the idea to an American production company. 

He then explained how, when it came to organising where it would be released, the American production company insisted it should premiere in the USA. Fellowes didn’t like the idea - the film was set in Britain, written by Brit, and predominantly acted by Brits. As a compromise, the film premiered in the USA, but also opened the London Film Festival that year - as a one-off screening, although it didn’t go on general release in the UK for another six months.

At the London Film Festival, Fellowes told us that the critics panned it, particularly the broadsheets. The American’s loved it. In fact, they loved it so much Fellowes was nominated for an Oscar (which he won). Of course, all this news filtered back to the UK, and when the film eventually went on general release here the critics (including the ones who’d panned it before when they’d seen it at the London Film Festival) now raved about it.

When it came to Downton Abbey, Fellowes told us that many production companies advised him the British TV audience didn’t want yet another period or costume drama, and when ITV commissioned it there were many mutterings that the television company had got it so badly wrong, investing so much money in this idea, when ITV had little money to spend at the time. Of course, Downton has since gone on to be a worldwide success.

Now, Fellowes wasn’t saying that these creative professionals hadn’t got a clue and didn’t know what they were doing. Actually, they were making judgments based upon the information and their experience at the time. And their gut feeling. After all, there is no magic formula that says if an idea has X, Y and Z, with a hint of A and B, it will be a huge success. So, people in the industry have to love a project to accept it and take it on. They are taking a risk, after all. A huge one. It doesn’t matter whether they’re a literary agent, a publisher, a film producer or an editor.

But what Fellowes was saying was that you have to believe in yourself, and your ideas. It doesn’t matter how many times you get rejected, keep persevering. It’s the tenacious b*gg*rs who don’t give up who go on to succeed. When it comes to fiction, there are no clear cut guidelines as to what will work and what won’t. But you have to believe in yourself, and you have to continue banging on doors, trying to find that one person who will believe in you. And when they do believe in you, just take a moment to appreciate the risk they’re taking in you.

Good luck.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Pseudonym Solicitudes

Last week I had the same query from two new students on a subject I happen to be writing about at this very moment for my column in Writing Magazine: pseudonyms - when should a writer use one?

In many respects, I’m confused by the number of new writers who think about this. Let’s be blunt - if you’re a new writer, then your priority should be sitting down and writing something first, rather than struggling to decide what name you’re going to be published under. After all, you can’t be published until you written something and submitted it!

That’s not to say writers don’t need a pseudonym, and there are many reasons why you might HAVE to have one. For example, last weekend I was at the National Association of Writers’ Group’s Festival of Writing, during which they held their annual Mini-Tale competition. Entries must be 100-words (exactly) and, in previous years, submitted under a pseudonym, enabling the judging process to be blind and impartial (this year a new numbering system was introduced negating the need for a pseudonym). So, delegates who'd entered in those previous years HAD to submit under a pseudonym. It was a condition of entry. But they had no need for a pseudonym until they’d written their entry.

There are short story writers who regularly write for the women’s magazine market. While many of these magazines are happy to have two short stories by the same writer in the same issue, some are uncomfortable if they want to use three or more stories by the same writer in the same issue. At which point they get in touch and ask the writer for a pseudonym to use instead. Again, these writers had written something first (and, the reason for the pseudonym is not because they’d written something, but because they’d written lots) and had then been asked for a pseudonym by the publisher.

It’s also common for writers established in one market to consider a pseudonym when trying to break into another market. Readers may be confused if your last twenty novels have been romances, and your next is a psychological thriller. Writing under a different name for a different market keeps your two ‘brands’ distinct and separate. But again, in this situation the writer has already written plenty of material and had it published.

Of course, there are times when what you’re writing about is too close to home, and it may be unsafe for you to write about it under your own name. That’s certainly another valid reason for using a pseudonym. But in that situation creating a pseudonym is relevant when you’ve written your material and are ready to submit to publishers/publications.

So, if you think you need a pseudonym, ask yourself if you need one right now. Or could it wait until you’ve actually written something? Don’t waste your energy trying to think of something suitable until you need one. Some writers get so hung up trying to come up with a new name they find themselves unable to actually get on with the writing.

Good luck.