Book Trade

My story is far too long. What do I do?

A writer recently howled on a forum that his novel was far too long: it was 180,000 words when people were saying that no agent will look at a book over 90,000. He did sense that there were things to cut, but didn't know where to begin. And how on earth was he to get it down to half the length - lose every other word, effectively - and still have a novel, not a blood-sodden mess? There are an awful lot of writers who have faced up to this problem, but actually it's two relatively separate problems: what length... Read more →


The Fiction Editor's Pharmacopoeia; diagnosing symptoms & treating the disease

The Society for Editors and Proof-readers is and does exactly what it says on the tin (and if you're thinking of self-publishing, it would be a very good place to start looking for proper professional help.) So I was delighted to be asked to speak to their Editing Fiction conference, exploring and explaining the decisions that we writers make, so that in tackling writing where the decisions aren't producing a good result, writers and editors can have a common language. As I was discussing in my post about giving feedback, it's one thing to recognise a problematic symptom: over-writing, say,... Read more →


Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction is published on 10th March

I'm ridiculously thrilled to have my author's copies of Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction sitting on my desk. It really does embody all the things I find myself saying when I'm teaching workshops and blogging, not just about historical fiction but writing fiction and creative non-fiction in general. Whether you're new to writing of any kind and have just fallen in love with a person or a period and can't rest till you've had a shot at bringing it to life on paper, or you're an experienced writer who's always loved reading historical fiction but have never dared to... Read more →


Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt: "I have a book deal. Why don't I feel euphoric?"

Q: When I got my very first short story published I was truly ecstatic and I'd always planned, if a book deal happened, to take all my clothes off, run around the garden, and roll in the grass. Now, I've worked long and hard to write a book good enough to sell, and succeeded: it's two-book deal with a well-known smallish independent publisher which punches above its weight in terms of presence in the industry. But I've never felt the euphoria. The thing is, there was no advance involved so I still feel I've achieved nothing. It's my family's voice... Read more →


Download a chapter FREE from Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction

As you may know, my first non-fiction book, Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, is due to be published next month as part of the Teach Yourself series. I’m delighted that John Murray Learning have produced a free e-book sampler which contains the whole first chapter. It’s a pdf file, and to download it all you should need to do is click this link: Download GS Hist Fic sampler. It's a .pdf file (click here if you don't have a pdf reader); it will either dowload directly, or display in your browser for you to save to your computer. If... Read more →


David Mamet's ideas on acting make sense for writers too

I've blogged before about how useful it can be for prose and fiction writers to think in terms of theatre and drama, and again at The History Girls about why my own Drama degree has been so useful to me. So when I came across this post, on actor James Devereaux's Great Acting Blog, I couldn't help hearing it as a way of thinking about writing. James has collected some of playwright and director's David Mamet's most thought-provoking and important ideas, and I hope he won't mind if I borrow them. Learn to ask: what does the character in the... Read more →


Ten New Year ideas for everyone who writes, or wants to write

First of all, Happy New Year and grateful thanks to everyone - writers and readers - who reads the blog, and a special lift of the Champagne glass (all right, Prosecco glass - we're on a writer's budget, here) to anyone who comments, spreads the word or links to the blog from elsewhere. Without you all, there wouldn't be a blog, because why would I talk, if I didn't have someone to talk to? I don't really do New Year's Resolutions, because they bring out my Inner Stroppy Toddler. But this is, let's (two-)face it, the Janus time of the... Read more →


You will never annoy anyone if you present a manuscript like this

Well, I can't absolutely promise that, but pretty darned close. Of course this is subject to whatever the magazine, publisher, agency or editor says on their website that they want. And we are talking prose, here, not scripts or poetry, which run by different rules. But don't think that, just because we're in the digital age, what's used on computers has superseded what's used on manuscripts. The book is near-perfectly evolved technology for reading large amounts of prose, and the book and magazine trade still handles prose in those paper-based forms, even on screen. Digital design has evolved to suit... Read more →


All the posts I mentioned at the York Festival of Writing 2015

As ever, in among a mini-course, two workshops, a dozen one-to-one meetings and several dozen informal conversations, sober and otherwise, that made up my weekend at York, I mentioned a fair few blog posts that might be useful to someone. If you want to get a flavour of this year's festival, veterans Debi Alper and Andrew Wille have posted about it, aspiring writer Jo Hogan has written very sapiently about what she learnt from her second festival, and this is a round-up of my impressions from past years. But, really, York is all about writing better. So here are a... Read more →


Creative thinking, creative writing, Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, and all that (Darwin) stuff ...

What with finishing Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction (the copy-edited manuscript has just landed on my desk) and the way I keep acquiring new writers to mentor, I've been thinking a lot lately about not just creative writing, but creative thinking. It's what writers don't necessarily have in common with literary critics, and may have in common with geologists. It's what choreographers have in common with farriers, and mathematicians with symphonists, and architects with historians. And it's what my physicist grandfather Charles had in common with his composer cousin Ralph, and their shared ancestors Erasmus and Josiah ... Leith... Read more →


Solving mis-takings in your story: if you can't beat 'em, join 'em

What do you do when the right word - phrase - action - scene - is something which the reader might take the wrong way? Anything from tripping up on a word, to hooting with laughter at a moment of high drama? The other day, writer Graeme Talboys posted this on Facebook: OK. I know this is very first-world anorak writery stuff, but in my latest work I have a psychic who is also illiterate. The problem is, I keep using the term 'read' to describe what she is doing and it is beginning to jar in my head. Is... Read more →


"Everything About My Writing Is Awful And No, I'm Not OK."

I'm talking about those times when writing seems impossible but so does everything else: when your heart - your life itself - is stapled to the page and no one wants it. And that heart, the life itself, is a miserable, clichéd, shrivelled thing, and you a deluded, talentless fool for ever dreaming that you might have something worth saying which people would want to hear. Just as the Guardian's Work-Agony Uncle Jeremy Bullmore inspired me to track down Jerusha Cowless and recruit her to This Itch of Writing, this brilliant post about that feeling in your life as a... Read more →


The Itch of Writing Bookself 3: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

The third in a new series of mini-reviews that focus on what a book I've enjoyed has to offer a writer. Click here for the full (or rather, rapidly filling) Itch of Writing Bookshelf, and if you're looking for books to help with your writing directly, then click through to Books for Writers. H IS FOR HAWK by Helen Macdonald Helen Macdonald was a young academic when her photojournalist father suddenly died. She had flown and worked with birds of prey as a hobby, but now she decided to buy and train a young goshawk: the biggest as well as... Read more →


Making a living from writing books: what works, what doesn't

[17th July 2018: edited to update ALCS figures] So the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society has done a survey, and found that the median average income for professional writers (i.e. those who spend the majority of their working time writing) has fallen by 42% since 2005, and 15% since 2013. The number of writers who get all their income from writing is down from 40% to 13.7%, and the median annual income of a professional writer now stands at £10,500, which equates to £5.73 per hour (the national minimum wage is currently £7.83). And I know anecdotally that advances are... Read more →


Historical Fiction Autumn: Hodgson, Harrogate and How Not to Start your Historical Novel

It seems to be Historical Fiction Autumn. The Historical Novel Society's Awards have had a good deal to do with that; I was one of the judges for their 2014 Short Story Award, and our comments on Anne Aylor's wonderful winning story, "The House of Wild Beasts", and on the two runners-up, are now up on the site. The HNS's website is also stuffed with great blogs and articles about everything to do with historical fiction. Antonia Hodgson, whose debut novel The Devil in the Marshalsea is very high indeed on my TBR pile since I heard her speak and... Read more →


Picked up a bad book? Think of it as a good one.

It may give teachers a pleasurable sense of superiority to start by assuming that our students are ignorant, lazy or stupid, but as a teacher I get a whole lot further, faster, with helping a student if I start from the assumption that they have reasons for working as they do. The outcome may be unsuccessful in many ways, but that doesn't mean the reasons weren't good ones. And for a teacher, those good reasons are the place to start. On the other hand, a lot of the world enjoys being outraged, scornful, cynical, disapproving, or cleverly pessimistic. Do you... Read more →


Judging writing: why does presentation matter?

I've had a lovely, tricky time as one of the judges for the Historical Novel Society's Award for 2014, and the results are here. There were some great stories, and we had a right old barny between the three of us to decide the winners. And then the other day I bumped into Jacqueline Molloy, whose marvellous story "Wake" won first place at the Frome Festival competition in 2011. I don't know if I or she was more surprised at how much I remembered of it, but it's got me thinking. My friend Susannah Rickards' guest-blogs about being a filter... Read more →


Historical Novel? Biography? When is your life writing actually historical fiction?

I'm delighted to have been commissioned by Hodder to write Getting Started in Historical Fiction, for John Murray Learning's classic Teach Yourself list. It will be published towards the end of 2015, and starting it prompted my post So What Counts as Historical Fiction?. But there's another question I'll need to explore. Fiction is often a way of exploring real worlds and lives, but what makes a narrative about a real historical character a novel, and not a biography? A biography or autobiography is a whole life narrated with the techniques and boundaries of the historian: provable facts assembled; the... Read more →


Procrastinating Again? And Again? And Again?

[ETA 1st May 2020:] When I was asked to record a short film for the Royal Literary Fund, about a writing talisman, there was really only one thing I could honestly talk about: the Instant Gratification Monkey. His role and character has changed hugely since I wrote this post six years ago, so do click through to the RLF Showcase to watch it. *** When things are quiet on here, I know a post about procrastination will liven it up, but things are pretty lively at the moment. However, I've come across a post about it on the splendid Wait... Read more →


How do you decide which project to go for?

So, you've written a good deal of longish stuff, and know something of what it takes to sustain a project. And you've got lots of ideas for stories, and several of them look promising for a book-length project. The interactions and conflicts they set up might be enough to fuel a novel, or the seam of travel or life that you're drawing on is rich enough for your creative non-fiction. But of those promising ones, which should you commit to? How can you make sure that, some months of research and writing down the line, you won't realise that this... Read more →