Tuesday, 29 December 2009


I said I would leave you alone till New Year, but I've had enough of this chocolate-eating-wine-drinking-not-knowing-what-day-of-the-week-it-is lifestyle so, I'm back! I hope you are ready.

As the old year draws to an end, I thought I'd offer some thoughts about the next one. It's not that easy with a brain full of Christmas pud, but I'll do my best. It seems sensible to talk about something people do at New Year: make resolutions. And then break them. This item in the Guardian yesterday tells us that scientists have discovered that most resolutions will be broken, for a number of reasons that we really don't need scientists to tell us. Like the fact that they were silly resolutions.

So, let's ignore that depressing  message and focus on what we can do. Resolutions should be seen as goals and should be neither too easy nor too difficult. If they are too easy, there's not much point in them. If they're too difficult, ditto, because they will just demoralise you. Vague resolutions are most likely to be broken - "I will do more exercise and drink more water and less wine" is my standard failure.

But failure need not be bad. Blog-reader and hard task-master, Dan Holloway, said on Twitter today that "in the arts it's dangerous to set yourself goals you can achieve" because it's the first step to complacency. That's a tough message; if it works for you, that's great. But maybe I need to define what I mean by goals. I certainly have dreams and aspirations that are way above anything I've achieved so far, and I don't actually expect ever to reach them. That feels fine, keeps me hungry, and breeds the painful dissatisfaction that is part of being a "Type A" personality. It's part of me that I don't want to change, though I wouldn't wish it on everyone. 

But dreams and aspirations are not goals and they're not resolutions. I believe the best way to look at goals is to follow the well-known "SMART" doctrine. This states that goals should be "specific, measurable, agreed upon, realistic and time-based". [For an excellent description of how to set and work towards goals like this, do go to the Project Smart website at www.projectsmart.co.uk and click on the link on the right, for 8 Strategies for Achieving Smart Goals.] These are the sort of goals that we do need to achieve, otherwise we may spiral into powerlessness.

Based on that, I have a resolution / goal and I'll tell you what it is in a minute. Hold yourselves back.

First, because it's relevant, I want to remind you of a recent post I did about a book called Booklife. That book is partly about setting realistic goals for writers, and how to achieve them while maintaining a life. It's being published later this year in the UK, but if you go to the booklifenow website you'll find extracts. For a taster, and because it's also relevant to what I've been wittering about, try this page here.

Having been someone who always juggled several projects / ideas / crazinesses without planning or stopping to breathe and re-evaluate my life, and therefore someone who regularly panicked about lack of direction or achievement or having too much to do and not knowing what to do first, I have become much better at stopping regularly to re-set goals and evaluate progress. And it feels good. So, I look back at goals I've set for myself [and some do include dreams and aspirations as well, and are therefore sometimes not achieved] and re-set them. Each time, I find that I have achieved some, which feels good, [sorry, Dan - first step to complacency!]; that I have changed ny mind about some, which feels sensible and controlled; and that some are still waiting for me to achieve them, which feels motivating. But those that are SMART will mostly be ticked off by the appointed deadline.

I had one SMART goal which I failed to achieve: I should have written 20,000 words of my WIP by Christmas, and I'd only done 10,000, a significant failure. Was there a good reason? Yes and no. The rather scarily spectacular success of Pen2Publication was the reason, and it was a good one. But I also know that, to be honest, I could have written that extra 10,000 words easily and still spent the same time on Pen2Publication. This is where my new goal / resolution comes in...

On the basis that an important motivation to stick to a goal is to tell other people about it, I will now go public with my new resolution [and then invite you to go public with yours]:
GOAL: I will write my word target each day before writing anything else, including emails. My word target will be a very modest 1,500 words on every weekday unless I am travelling to or doing a talk. I will do this until the first draft of the WIP is finished.
How is it SMART? It's:

Specific - it's not vague, such as "I will put writing higher up my list of priorities", even though that was my initial thinking and aim behind it.
Measurable - my success or failure will be objective.
Agreed-upon - because I've told you and I insist that you agree that this is a good goal for me!
Realistic - because I have not said I can't read my emails, which would be an unrealistic rule for me, judging by past attempts, just that I can't write any / reply to any. I could have said I couldn't put the internet on, but I might need the internet for research while writing [my normal method] so I know I'd be likely to disobey. Besides, reading my emails is my drug and I am not trying to give up!
Time-based - because this is for a set amount of time, not the rest of my life. However, I do hope that it will kick me into a new and life-long habit - but that hope is not part of the goal. It's an aspiration.

You may wonder why I'll still have the same amount of time left for other work if I've written 1,500 words first. The thing is that I fritter time on emails etc early in the day, and don't get going till I have the deadline of tea-time approaching. If I can use the frittering time for writing, by putting writing first with its own specific deadline, everything else, the easier and mechanical stuff, will still get done.

I have some other goals that I won't bore you with - income targets, other writing tasks, development of certain areas, but this is the one I am most in control of. If I can't do this one thing, the most important part of my writing life, then I will despise myself and you are welcome to despise me, too - though the occasional failure through exceptional circs, such as illness, will be acceptable. Please! If I have to miss a day or two, I will just make up the missing word count the next day.

Over to you. In a comment below, you are each allowed to tell us about one SMART writing-related goal.

I'll blog again on Jan 1st, with a post requested by blog-reader Catherine Suttle, who wants to hear how it felt when I got an agent / publisher the first time, as an inspirational start to the year. A kind of "how was it for you?" And how it happened, how I cracked it. Agh - I may have to admit that I broke several of my own rules. On the other hand, "Do as I do, not as I say"... And I didn't send any toffees to unsuspecting agents, thank goodness. [By the way, an agent friend just received a tea-bag with a submission. NOOOOOOO.]

And on Jan 1st I will also ask you for topics you'd like me to blog about in the coming year. Please don't add them to the comments here - wait till Jan 1st.

Meanwhile, let's spend the last two days of 2009 preparing to acheive our SMART goals in 2010. Happy end of 2009, everyone!

Sunday, 20 December 2009


Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, I wish you whatever varieties of pleasure you need and / or deserve over the holiday period, and a very peaceful time. One sort of peace I promise* is peace from me, since I'm going to take a little blogiday, and not pester you until the New Year. At which point I shall expect to hear all your writerly resolutions, and I hope to have a few myself.

[* OK, possibly not exactly promise, as you never know when the spirit might move me to get my soap-box out from under the bed. But kind of offer with some probability, at least.]

Meanwhile, during Christmas I will raise a glass to all of you, my lovely blog-readers - you have been a true highlight of my year. Honestly. I know, I know: you're welling up with emotion, but you really have given me lots of pleasure, masses to think about and an insight into so many different mindsets and situations. You have informed and enriched me. You have soothed my crabbity brow on many occasions. In fact, the only thing I can criticise you for is that through your constant willingness to follow my advice and say nice things to me you have rubbed the edges off my inner crabbitness and if I'm not careful I will no longer be the first Google result for Crabbit Old Bat.

I'm sure you agree that this would be a shame and a loss to the world. So please return in the New Year and try to be a bit more annoying.

On a more serious note, I know that Christmas can be a sad or difficult time for many people, especially if you are missing a loved one, but whatever your circumstances, I wish you the greatest possible peace and happiness. And indulgence and silliness, both of which are important and much-to-be-welcomed on occasion. To all writers, may your Muse rest and rise up rejuvenated for a wonderful 2010. Time away from your desk can be a powerful trigger for new and better ideas, so use your time well, letting your mind and imagination wander free, possibly even liberated by a glass or two of the sparkly stuff.

And I don't mean lemonade.

A very good Christmas to you all. I will be back.

Nicola xxx

Thursday, 17 December 2009


I've talked before [and elsewhere] about how, as writers, we need to know our readers. All readers are different, thank goodness, and we can't write for all of them, but we need to have a sense of who our intended readers are. More than a sense, in my humble etc: we need to know the way their hearts beat, how to shiver their emotions and wrench each kink in their colons.

It strikes me that one of the most useful and practical ways to do this, given that we cannot actually examine the thankfully well-hidden parts of their anatomy, is to know what other books our intended readers enjoy. In other words, what sort of a reader is your reader?

It's another way of asking yourself what sort of a book yours is. What is it like? What do you want it to be like? What are your aims for it? Of course, you want your book to be different, not just the same as something else, but it will have to be sufficiently like some other books for it to attract some readers. Humans like patterns; we need to know what sort of thing to expect, to be able to identify meanings and intentions. Yes, we love to be surprised, too, and sometimes shocked. But we don't like to be deceived or confused or messed around with. As readers, we may want to be challenged but we want to feel we went on a journey with the author and weren't just sent tumbling off a cliff in the dark.

When you have decided what your readers read, this does not mean you then spoon-feed them more of exactly the same. It does not mean you sell-out and give them exactly what they ask for: it simply means that you know how to engage and hook them, how to keep them with you, how not to let the buggers go till the very last page and way beyond. It means you'll stay with them, haunting their thoughts for long after they've finished your book. And it means they'll come back to you for more.

So, my unusually succinct advice for today is: decide what your intended readers also read. And if you don't know, then I rather strongly and even crabbitly suggest that you read my previous post because it seems to me that if you don't know, then you are not reading in genre. And if that's the case then I rather think you should go to the back of the class and stand in the corner with a large conical thing on your head.

When you know what your intended readers also read, you know them as readers, which is all you really need to know. Because then you can do very satisfying things with their innards.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009


A recent blog post raised a question from a reader, which I promised to answer. Have I ever let you down yet? [There's still time, of course.]

The post was here and the question from Samantha went as follows:
 "Are you saying, Nicola, that one must be widely read in a particular genre before attempting to write for it? Up until now I have written humorous chick lit and very much enjoy reading this genre. But, all of a sudden, I am inspired to write YA, not so humorous, because the plot I really want to write about doesn't 'fit' an adult genre so well. So, am I supposed to read widely in YA before putting pen to paper?

... [removed bit] ...I guess it just niggles me a bit, because as writers we are always being told to 'write the story we feel compelled to write' - and now I  feel I'm being told, ooh, if you aren't well-read in YA, how can you possibly attempt to write it.

Aargghhh! I'm sure you'll put me right:)"
Oh, indeedly doodly!

[As an aside, the bit I cut cited Meyer and Rowling as two examples of writers that Samantha reckoned just "wrote the story they wanted" and weren't well-read in their genre. Actually, an Eng Lit grad and mother, JKR is well-read in her genres - fantasy / children's - and Meyer I haven't a clue about but in any case we don't learn anything if we use the very unusual to explain the ordinary. Besides, Samantha says - and I honestly know / care nothing about this but she may be right - that Meyer's publisher then "tailored the book for the market". Well, je reste ma valise: is that what normal authors want or can expect? No, it isn't. Thing is, both those authors hit a vein of success which cannot be predicted or planned and any attempt to use them to prove anything that relates to writing in general is unhelpful. Therefore, can we not [c]rabbit on about this in the comments below? I regard it as off-topic. We can talk about it another time if you must, and if you care nothing for my mood, especially since I gave myself three paper cuts opening Christmas cards this morning, as well as one Magimix cut.]

Right. Back to the point. Why did I say and why do I absolutely maintain that writers should be well-read in the books being currently published in the genre they are writing for? [And by the way, I'm not alone: Stephen King also says it in On Writing. Nor have I ever heard any published writer, agent or editor say anything to contradict it.]

First, why "CURRENTLY"? Why can't we just read old stuff? What's wrong with the good old days when people knew their split infinitives from their hanging participles?

If you are only reading bygone successes you risk one of two traps:
1) The Jane Austen Trap. Every couple of years there's a stupid fracas when a silly person sends a slightly disguised first chapter of a Jane Austen book to a publisher pretending that he /she wrote it; publisher returns it saying it's "not right for our list"; silly person jumps up and down in self-righteous glee, saying, "See how useless publishers are! They can't even recognise a classic when they see it!" No, stupid: Jane Austen is not right for their lists because publishers are not looking for Jane Austen, because if readers want Jane Austen they can read Jane Austen. Publishers want what readers want NOW, not what they wanted a million years ago.

2) The Enid Blyton Trap. There are, last time I counted, 5,739,841 aspiring writers out there who have decided that they'd like to write a children's book because they remember enjoying them so much when they were little. Well, all respect to EB, but she was writing in times of old-fashionedness, and, as well as writing in the style of those times, was unhealthily affected by the undesirable aspects of the day, such as classism, racism, sexism and Imperialism, as well as the more pleasant ones such as naiveté, absence of health and safety, and lashings of ginger beer. Things have changed, and the things you can, should, must, mustn't do are vastly different. So, if you don't read the modern stuff, when you come to write it you risk looking like some patriarchal buffoon who hasn't noticed that the Empire has fallen and there's gravy on his cravat.

So, why do we have to be widely-read in our genre? Samantha is widely read, but now she wants to write a YA novel and says she's not widely read in this genre. Can't she just go ahead?

First, I respect Samantha's reason for wanting to write YA  -  that the plot that she's thinking of fits YA. If she'd said she just fancied doing it, I'd have been more inclined to be crabbit: too many people simply think it would be easier than adult fiction. It's not. Just different.

However, I wonder how anyone knows the plot fits YA if they don't know much about YA books. It's common to think that simply having a teenage character makes the book YA. In that case, please read The Illumination of Merton Browne by JM Shaw. Or even the first chapter.  

On the other hand, Samantha may well be right and her plot may beautifully fit a YA format. But she won't know that until she reads some, and not just any: there are many types of YA, so if hers is "gritty realism" she'll need to read some [for example] Keith Gray or Catherine Forde. Etc etc for other types of YA. And I'm not only talking about YA  -  the same applies for any genre.

Anyway, speaking generally now and moving away from the personal. Here's what we all risk by not being widely read in our intended genre:

1)  not knowing the rules of the genre. Every genre has rules and if we don't know them we risk breaking them and looking silly [or not being published.] Rules are there to be deliciously broken or stretched but only intentionally and with reason. You can't do that if you don't know them.

2) not knowing what's already been done. It would be very easy for an author not to realise that a topic / voice / character has already been done to death or has recently been tackled in a high-profile book. You could look very ignorant. As Stephen King says in On Writing, "the more sf you've read, the less likely it is that you'll simply revisit the well-mined conventions...".

3) not writing in an original voice. Of course, not every story is or can be original in voice, but you could easily look very unoriginal or old-fashioned. Is that what you want?

4) not being passionate about what you do. And that dispassion will shine through. Stephen King again: "You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing unless it has been done to you."

5) not being able to show or feel total commitment to a career in this genre. After all, one book is not enough. Your agent or publisher will need to build a career with you and you will need to feel utterly comfortable with the genre if you are to write several books in it, consecutively.

6) failing to sell it to an agent or publisher because you cannot show knowledge and commitment in your covering letter, or because you appear shallow or ignorant in your approach. I agree that this would be easily overcome with common sense, but you would not believe the ignorance of this sort that I've seen in covering letters shown to me by agents.

7) remaining outside the world of your future fellow authors. Writers  -  real writers  -  read. I spend a lot of time communicating with other YA writers and I would quickly know if one of us wasn't up-to-date with what was being written. We recommend books to each other all the time - sometimes in criticism, sometimes in praise. I'd have a very low opinion of someone who couldn't join us in our own game and passion and yet who presumed to reap money from it. I'd call them a mercenary. What we read informs and redefines us; as readers and as writers. As a writer I want to be part of it, not outside looking in.

8) displaying disrespect for your fellow authors. So, you're saying their sort of writing is so easy that you don't need to learn anything about it? [Samantha, please don't take this personally: I am making a general point about risks for authors choosing not to read in genre. I am sure you're not disrespectful. Well, you'd better not be!]

9) displaying arrogance. Yep, I'm saying it again. Again, I'm not saying I think Samantha is but I'm saying this is the risk. You may not feel arrogant, but it's what a potential agent / publisher will think if you show that you don't read in the genre. It displays a sense of, "yeah, well it's easy to do what these crime fic / YA / pic book authors do  -  I can do that, easy as falling off a bike."

Yes, well you can do yourself a nasty injury falling off a bike.

So, to anyone planning to write in a genre for which he or she does not have affinity, passion and knowledge, I say, don't. Unless you want to take a very very long time to become published. Or unless you want to rely wholly on luck. In which case, good luck to you because you'll need it.

Personally, I write for teenagers because I love teenage fiction and I feel very connected, through it, to teenagers, my readers. I don't know a teenage author who doesn't feel like that.

None of this denies the other truth: that we must tell the story that we burn to tell. I just question how would know how to write it brilliantly, if you don't properly know how that type of story works. And doesn't work.If you don't know the traps, how can you avoid them?

PS for any putative YA authors out there (Samantha?) - if you tell me what type of story it will be I'll recommend you three YA novels to read. You don't have to read the whole canon!

PPS please don't forget the lovely offer of a doubly-signed book, signed to you [or a friend of yours] personally by David Robinson and Alexander McCall Smith. They are coming, at my request, to sign the copies on Thursday, so you need to order by tomorrow. In Cold Ink is a fabulously interesting look into the minds and lives of many of the world's best authors and if it's a well-read person you want, look no further than David R, Books editor of the Scotsman!

Friday, 11 December 2009


I have a very special offer for you today, to solve your Christmas problems, or at least those problems which involve what book to buy for someone who would love the idea of getting inside the heads of some of the world's most important writers. Especially if you would like that book signed, personally, by not one but TWO authors. [Fear not: none of them is me.]

First, a story of my own. The first big interview I ever did as an author was by the Scotsman Literary Editor, David Robinson, when Fleshmarket was published. I don't know if he'll remember this but he had to wait a whole hour while a photographer trapped me in a glass cabinet in a surgical museum, along with an effigy of Dr Robert Knox, some pickled body parts, a priceless violin, some human skin, and a life-size 200-year-old skeleton. David has the reputation of being a very lovely man, but his loveliness was tested by this. After all, it was only me, not one of the big names he usually interviews.

Which brings me to the point of today. I have in front of me a book. It's called In Cold Ink: On the Writers' Tracks by David Robinson. It's a beautiful book, the luxurious paper and expensive production making it heavier than it looks, and its contents achieve the author's aim: to create "something similar to a book festival". It contains authors, lives, stories, memories, insights. David is better placed than any to answer on behalf of all of us that perennial question: where do you get your ideas? He's travelled to Botswana with his great friend, Alexander McCall Smith, who was also responsible for the publication of this book; he's visited the house where Truman Capote asked for help with In Cold Blood [whence the title], and rung the same doorbell; he's touched the monopoly board that Anne Frank used with her friend while they tried to take their minds off the real game being played outside; he's interviewed Ian McEwan, William Boyd, Richard Ford, JG Ballard, Ali Smith, Edwin Morgan, AL Kennedy, Studs Terkel, and many others, and he brings them all into your sitting-room with warmth and intelligence. To be honest, he's a story-teller himself.

Anyway, since David interviewed me some years ago, he's sometimes asked me to write reviews or articles, giving me deadlines and fierce word-counts and even paying me. So it was with a rather fitting pleasure yesterday that I gave him a horrible deadline and a very fierce word count. And didn't pay him.

The interview is below and I hope you'll be interested. I hope, too, that you'll agree that this is a book any booklover would enjoy. If you do, and if you order it from The Edinburgh Bookshop [details below] before next Weds 5pm, there will be four happy results:
  • you will be supporting an independent bookshop
  • you will make a lucky reader (perhaps yourself) very happy
  • David will sign it for you [or for your intended recipient]
  • Alexander McCall Smith will also sign it for you or your intended recipient
Now that, I hope you agree, is an unmissable opportunity. Both men have kindly agreed to nip over to Vanessa's bookshop to do this and I am thrilled with the success of my string-pulling and devious machinations, when I should have been working, but you know me: never one to pass up a work avoidance strategy...

So, finally, introducing David Robinson:

NM:  You say that you wanted In Cold Ink to be “the ultimate book festival book”. Tell us what you mean by that.
DR: Well, it’s a perk of my job that I get to see a lot of book festivals. And the other perk is interviewing a lot of writers who star at them. So I like to think of In Cold Ink as a sort of book festival in its own right: big ticket names like Ian McEwan, William Boyd, Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, Ian Rankin, Kate Atkinson, along with wonderful writers like Yiyun Li or Zoe Wicomb that you mightn’t have heard of, maybe in the smaller tents.  But mine is of course a book festival that can also bring the dead back to life, so you get interviews with people like Robin Jenkins, JG Ballard and the great American journalist (and one of my great heroes) Studs Terkel too.
NM: Now, I know what you're like as an interviewer - even when perched on a stool in a cupboard behind a room full of body parts, as you were when you interviewed me, but how would you describe yourself as an interviewer?

DR:  I’m a sort of anti-Lynne Barber.  Not that I don’t enjoy reading her, but I’ve always thought that the whole point of an interview is the subject, not the journalist.  Ali Smith talks about how she can only start writing when her ego has got out of the way, and I think something similar applies in interviews too.
NM: Can you elaborate?
DR: I suppose that I’m happiest in a sort of fly-on-the-wall role. The way I see it, if I’m at Ian McEwan’s house for lunch,  I’m standing in for everyone who wants to find out what he’s doing now, who’s interested in his work and what direction it’s taking and why. And that’s thousands and thousands of people. 
NM: What’s the hardest interview you’ve done? [At this point, I am hoping for juicy gossip...]
DR: Well, writers are the easiest people to interview – they’ve been locked away sometimes for years on end working on this project so when someone comes along and asks them about it, they’ll tell you anything you want. It’s the people who interview pop stars I feel sorry for: at least I always get a lot more than monosyllabic grunts.  Even when you get someone like Robin Jenkins who didn’t want to answer any questions about why he became a conscientious objector, I could still switch back into fly on the wall mode and describe sitting with him in oddly companionable silence in his farmhouse on the Cowal Peninsula and come away with what is, I think, a good interview.
NM: What were the ones you enjoyed doing the most? [I've given up on the juicy gossip angle. I'd be a rubbish journalist.]
DR:  The main thing about me is that I’m essentially just a reporter. I love stories, and I love being places where stories happened. So when I’m in Amsterdam with Ann Frank’s best friend and she takes me on a tour of the city and talks me through what it was like in the 1940s, I’m entranced. Or when I’m in Kansas talking to the people Truman Capote and  Harper Lee interviewed exactly 50 years ago this month for In Cold Blood. I adored that. There are moments when you can imagine yourself into other people’s books just by being in the places they wrote about, and those are the moments I treasure more than any, and I think write about best.
NM: In the book, you talk about touching the monopoly board that Anne Frank and her friend used. What did that feel like? I mean, I feel chilled just hearing about it.
DM: That describes perfectly how I felt. All the pieces were in a tiny polythene bag - not metal ones but wooden and with a slot for the cardboard picture of a battleship or a racing-car.

NM: [After a pause to process that image.] So if your book is a book festival, which authors aren’t in it that you really wish were? Whose trains were delayed or schedules too busy?
DR: JK Rowling should be there. I’d love to meet her and still never have. But the main one is Harper Lee. I sent her a copy of In Cold Ink and got a lovely letter back. I really just wanted to talk to her about visiting Kansas with Truman Capote doing the research for In Cold Ink. She’s already had To Kill A Mockingbird accepted for publication when they went to Kansas together. I love the fact that his book became the decade’s non-fiction bestseller and her book became the decade’s best-selling novel, that they’re childhood friends and working on a real-life murder mystery together.  To  me, that’s a story which has absolutely everything!
We had some more conversation, too, about how different things strike different people as most important. For David, for example, going to Kansas on the trail of Capote was the most memorable part. I'm still reading the book [though it's a book you can read in any order, as David suggests, and I have already read the last chapter  -  Capote again...] so I can't tell you which bit has got under my skin most, but I think Anne Frank's monopoly game will be tough to beat. Or there are the terrible true stories of young orphans in Mma Ramotswe's Botswana, where many of the children have seen unbearable things, survived unspeakable horror. But writers have funny stories, too, as all people do if they look for them. David has found those stories, and created his own international book festival, as he hoped. The happy difference between the book and a visit to the real Edinburgh International Book Festival is that we don't even have to get wet.

Anyway, work avoidance strategy or something far more pointful, today's interview has meant a lot to me. David, thanks so much for joining us. If only all authors were as easy to interview as you...

So, would anyone like to buy this lovely book, signed by TWO wonderful authors and very nice people? Here are the details:
  • UK addresses only - sorry... [There's always Amazon or the Book Depository, but your book won't be signed.]
  • email or phone The Edinburgh Bookshop - contact details in that link - and give them your order. Tell them you're phoning after reading this blog article - this is a special offer, for a limited time only. You can pay by phone with a credit card. Remember to say who you'd like the book signed to.
  • cost is £12 including 1st class postage. However, if you are in Edinburgh, I'm sure you could collect your book from Friday 18th onwards, and then I assume you'd just pay the cover price, £9.99. Ask! 
  • deadline for orders is Weds 16th Dec, 5pm UK time
  • That's it! Your book will be posted on Saturday 19th, 1st class, which the post office says is in time for Christmas
Meanwhile, if you have any questions for David, do ask them in the comments section. And then off you go to ask me some questions because I'm in the US answering questions on this interview here. The wonders of modern travel...

[In Cold Ink is published by Alexander McCall Smith's imprint, Maclean Dubois, in conjunction with Birlinn Ltd. The picture of David is by www.writerpictures.com]

    Wednesday, 9 December 2009


    Here I am, keeping my promise to you. I know: I've regularly said that the process of becoming published is simple [not "easy", note: "simple"]. I've said it so many times that some of you are in danger of suffering adage-fatigue. But let's say it one more time, all together now:
    "All you have to do is write the right book in the right way and send it to the right publisher at the right time and in the right way."
    After a recent post where I'd mentioned this again, it became obvious in the comments that there was some understandable misunderstanding as to what I meant by the most crucial part of this.


    First, here's what I do NOT mean:
    • a book which sells your soul, a book in which you have cynically or contrivedly ticked the boxes that you think publisher want you to tick, just to suit a market or gap therein. [You are most welcome to do this, and many people do with great success, but it's not what I do and not what many of you want to do. So, it's not what I mean.]
    • a book which you have written because you have spotted a trend. [NB: the trend while you're planning your book is a bandwagon disappearing into the distance in a cloud of dust by the time your proposed novel is published two years later. So, vampires are out as a viable trend. If you want my opinion, angels are the next trend, but the books with angels in are being delivered to publishers NOW, so you've missed that one already. Maybe it'll be fluffy bunnies next. No, forget predicting trends unless your balls are genuine crystal.]
    • any particular type of book at all. [There is no magic answer. Publishers are not looking for a particular book. So, no single particular book is the right book.]

    Oh no, no, no. When did I ever say nothing?

    Here are some constructive thoughts about what I do mean by "right book". [When I say "constructive", please don't think that I'm going to tell you what to write, by the way, just how to think about the writing of it].

    • The right book is that simple but elusive thing: a book that readers want to read.
    • Publishers are the ones who have to invest the money into bringing your book to readers, and publishers have a great deal of experience in selling books [though of course they don't always get it right - this is art, not science], so they are the ones who have to make the decision. [Self-publishing is a whole other story  -  and, by the way, should be a choice, not a dump-bin for your sensibly-rejected poor writing].
    • Although publishers need to sell books in order to recover their costs, they do not always look for the next best-seller. Most publishers will aim to have a number of big money-spinners and a whole load of books that break even or don't. Your book must fit somewhere in that range for them, depending on their financial situation, aims, and passion for your sort of book.
    • All readers are different, so what is right for one group is not right for another.
    • So, you might think, surely ANY book will fit into the above argument?
    • No.
    • Readers are a funny bunch. All of them. Even you. And me. A lot of us pretend we're very open-minded, but actually we have high and inherent need for believability, cohesion, patterns, flow - all the things which fire our neurons and allow us to reach the goal of all readers: narrative transportation. [I've written about narrative transportation somewhere  -  ah, here. It's my shortest ever post, I think, mainly because it's a link to some clever people who can tell you all about it properly].
    • And this means we like / need our books to have certain ingredients, in the appropriate measure. [Which I will mention in passing below, though I've covered them all before in posts about voice, pace, structure, beginnings etc].
    • This means that if you were hoping that I would tell you that the right book is, for example, a book about angels, or a historical adventure story set in Siberia, or a feisty chick-lit story with a wheel-chair bound heroine, or a crime noir novel with three disembowelled children in scene one, then I'd have to say: it could be any one of those or it could be any one of a million other possibilities.
    • But that your book must do the following things in order to be the "right book":
    1. Engage the reader from page one and never let him go till long after the book is finished. [Narrative transportation again.] We [all of us except the most desperate cynics or people who are forced to read books not of their choosing] choose to read this novel instead of that one because we hope we will enjoy it, nothing else.
    2. Fit the genre or type of book which the reader expects  -  so it must follow the rules, though not necessarily rigidly, and when it breaks the rules it must do so with reason, confidence and style. Experimental writing is wonderful and commendable, but if the experiment fails, you have to ask yourself why and take responsibility for not having engaged readers.
    3. Have a voice which is consistent, appropriate, genuine - not seeming contrived, never slipping from narrator to author or one character to another except in ways which follow the rules of voice. [And these rules are not arbitrary: they go to make a book, instead of a person putting some pretty words down for their own benefit].
    4. Have something about it which makes it sound like something we'd like to read. This is the "hook" that I've often mentioned. The hook is the brief, fabulously irrestible description of a book which makes everyone want to buy / borrow / read it. Why is this important? Because the right book is not a book which will sit and wait for readers to come to it: in order for it to reach readers at all, in the vast mountain of other books which may also be good, it not only has to BE good, it has to SOUND good. 
    Remember: no one is obliged to read your book. You have to make them want to. You think it's hard getting a publisher? You wait till you have to please paying readers, too.

    So, have you written the right book? If it sounds good when you describe it to me [or an agent, publisher, bookseller or reviewer] then that is a very good start indeed. But it will also have to be well written, following those rules that are necessary, breaking those which can be gloriously broken with good effect. It has to feel as though it was written by someone who:
    1. has a burning passion to engage the reader from the first word till long after the last word
    2. has the technical skill to do so
    In short: the right book is the book a publisher believes he or she can sell to an appropriate number of its intended readers. And that he can have faith in, loving it himself. Faith is pretty much what it boils down to: you have faith, now you have to make the publisher have faith, and the publisher has to make the readers have faith. The book that does that is the right book.

    See, it's simple. But it's not easy. Oh no, no, no. And I never said it was. From the very first day of this blog, back on January 11th, this blog has been headed by that quote from Thomas Mann. Go look. Not everyone agrees with me that writing is hard  -  Susan Hill doesn't. Well, she's lucky. I find it hard. I love it, especially when it's been hard and I eventually crack it. Frankly, if it was easy I wouldn't bother to do it.

    So many unpublished writers don't focus enough on the fact that their book may not be good enough yet, preferring to blame rejection on the other stuff, such as not having sent the right number of pages, or having put toffees in with the submission without realising that the agent had a toothache.

    Remember how I said in my last post that I once write a covering letter in rhyme? Well, it wasn't the covering letter that got me rejected: I hadn't written the right book.

    Sunday, 6 December 2009


    This may seem lazy but I'm going to re-post an old post. This blog has become so big that it can be hard to find the bits you need at the right time. [I will be doing some house-keeping over Christmas]. This post below is one I want to re-offer, partly because many of you are new to the blog and may have missed it, partly because I know there's at least one person out there who needs to be reminded about it, and partly because a brand-new reader has just emailed me to say that after a morning of trawling through my words, this was one that stuck in her mind. [Thank you Kirsty, and do stay with us  -  I really enjoyed meeting you yesterday and was hugely impressed by your questions and attitude!]

    Here it is [slightly shortened]  -  and, for the benefit of any of you who wonder why you've followed all my advice and still aren't published, please note that Point 3 is in your hands, not mine...

    First, for those who missed the tragic enormity of this failure, it took me twenty-one years of failing to get a novel published. ALL my adult life failing to achieve the one thing I really wanted: to be a novelist. That's some bruising failure. And bruised I was. Badly. It affected my health and happiness and my sense of self. Luckily [for them] few people knew about my constant attempts at fame and fortune. Unluckily [for him] my husband did. He's still here. Still waiting for me to earn a lot of money, I guess. I'm trying.

    I did get some "stuff" published during that time, but it wasn't enough. Educational books and stacks of magazine articles. I still get money from a magazine I wrote for ten years ago which keeps using my articles and pays me every time, with me sitting at home doing sod all - would you believe that today I actually sold "36th rights" for three articles?? Who needs to be a novelist when you get paid 36 times for something you can't even remember writing?

    And there was the odd moment of relative success [relative to abject failure], like appearing in Reader's Digest with my photo and being recognised on a bus, and a story winning an expensive pen in the Ian St James awards, and a couple of times almost making it through an aquisitions meeting. But almost is not enough.

    Anyway, reasons for my abject failure:
    1. I thought I was better than I was. I didn't know what mistakes I was making. This was in pre-blog days, when people like me [as in me now, not me then - me then would have been pretty useless] weren't sharing and telling me what shocking errors I was making.
    2. I wasn't thinking of my readers. Couldn't give a toss about them - yep, it was all for me. Moi, moi, moi. Self-indulgent, beauteous prose, right up my own backside, just gorgeous, over-written plotless stuff that gave me shivers of pride, and gave any potential reader a severe case of "where the hell's the plot gone or going and I mean why should we CARE about your drivellingly unlikely character who murdered her husband just because of some arcane psychological problem to do with Samuel Johnson which we are supposed to guess through the boring fog of your however-erudite turgidity?
    3. I hadn't written the right book. As in a book with a concept which would grab the agent / publisher with its stupendous hook, draw them into a tightly-written and either original or genre-specific plot, written by an author exuding wisdom and knowledge of the market. (Actually, I thought woman who murders husband because he's fat was quite good hook-wise, but hey, that was then.) See here for my post on this topic. (Not murders of fat husbands: I mean writing the right book.)
    4. I wasn't following the rules of submissions to publishers, despite the fact that I roll my eyes at you lot for sending toffees to agents and being similarly foolish. In fact, once I even .... but no, I can't tell you that. It's too embarrassing.
    And so followed the rejection letters. Because yes, I've had a few. There were occasional ones that said lovely things but gave suggestions contradicting previous ones (like "we feel it's too short" after "we feel it's too long" and "the plot is somewhat avant garde" after "the plot is somewhat traditional"); there were the "not right for our list" ones (unhelpful but true); there was my favourite (though not at the time) which consisted of my rubbish covering letter with the word NO! scrawled across it in pencil and returned to me in an envelope without a stamp even though I HAD included return postage; and there was the one which arrived back the day after I'd posted it, something which defies the laws of both postage and Newtonian motion and I can only assume that the postman was an Orion employee sent to destroy the slush pile before it occurred.

    So, if you are now in the position I was in then - one of soul-searing awfulness, when you feel that life will be utterly meaningless if you don't get that contract, when your whole belief in yourself is shaken daily - I feel your pain, I really do.

    Thing is, I wasn't good enough. And maybe ... sorry ... you aren't either. But maybe, by listening and learning and improving, you can become good enough. But remember too that it's not just about being good enough - it's about writing the right book at the right time and sending it to the right publisher at the right time. I've said it before. I could even become boring. (If you need a reminder, use the label "right book" on the list of labels to the right.)

    The trick, and the one which this blog tries to help with, is to work out whether:
    1. you are good enough but haven't written the right book yet
    2. you are good enough and have possibly written the right book really beautifully but haven't sent it to the right person in the right way
    3. you aren't good enough but could become so, with time, practice and/or help
    4. you aren't good enough and won't ever be published satisfactorily
    Thought for the day: actually, a lot of published writers aren't good enough either. Some of you may well be better than some of them. It all boils down to what a publisher thinks will sell. And I've already done a post on Why is crap published? But you're not writing crap, are you? Please say you're not. Though I have to be brutally honest and say that if you ask any agent or editor they will tell you that the vast bulk of the slush pile is crap, of a meaningfully finger-in-the-throat boggingness.

    After that brutality and after all these weeks of listening to me seem to know it all, you deserve to know that embarrassing thing I did. I can trust you now. Please don't laugh.

    Here goes. Deep breath. Will you still respect me? I was young then. Young and really stupid.

    The thing is ...


    People! Don't do it!

    ADDED ON DEC 6th:
    I cannot say this often enough: writing the right book is far more important than anything else. The right book is a book that a publisher thinks can sell sufficiently [which does not have to mean millions]. If you focus too much on whether the font should be Georgia or TNR, or whether it should be stapled or paper-clipped, you are focusing on the wrong things. Write the right damn book in the right damn way and send it to the right damn publishers in the rightish way and it will eventually be published. And don't tell me you followed all the rules and failed so the rules must be wrong. Nope, because you missed the most important rule: writing the right book. And my whole point in banging out crabbit words on this blog for nearly a year is this:

    I do not want you to take as long as I did. But I cannot write the book for you.
    Maybe I need to say more about what makes the right book. At last, the Crabbit Old Bat has a brainwave!

    Meanwhile, if any of you want individual feedback on your own books or Works in Progress, there is Pen2Publication. I can do quite a lot to show you if you have or haven't written a potentially right book".

    Thursday, 3 December 2009


    A blog-reader commented recently, "The more I read the more confusing it all gets". Yep, there's all this conflicting info about how to write and how to get published when all we really want is the answer to this simple situation: "I've written a book and I'm prepared to do anything to get it published; you publish books  -  so, whaddareyouwaitingfor?"

    The commenter's life was simpler when she thought it was simpler, when she didn't know much about how to submit work, or the things that people might complain about, and could just send it off on a wing and a prayer, instead of angsting about all the faux pas she mustn't make and all the invisible boxes she must tick. After all, if you just think, "The agent / publisher wants a great book and I've written one, so I'll send it to her and she'll love it," it's so simple, isn't it?

    This situation isn't helped by the fact that you'll read some rules, decide to follow them, and then immediately hear that so-and-so [insert name of extraordinarily successful writer] broke those rules and became an instant best-seller. The bastard.

    Nor is it helped by the fact that Agent A thinks a synopsis must be about four pages, with biogs, and Agent B says a synopsis should never be more than two pages and what's with the biogs? And Publisher Q thinks a writer is ignorant if she doesn't understand that a synopsis is not a chronological outline while everyone else seems to say that a synopsis is a chronological outline. [Basically, it is. But with bells on. And some bells removed. See? Meh!]

    At this point, you're with my confused commenter who wished she was still in ignorance.

    OK, now let's unpick this a bit. It's like physics. [Don't leave me now.] Let me reassure you: I gave up physics and chemistry at the age of 12, after a school report that said, "Nicola has no aptitude for science subjects." Teachers can be wrong: years later, I became fascinated by science, and not only started reading everything I could find about chaos theory, randomness, mathematics, time, quantum theory, brownian motion ... but also ended up writing two books on the human brain.

    And what did that mostly teach me? That there was far, far, far more out there than I could ever completely know, and that it was all horribly weird and certainly confusing, but that the more I knew the stronger I felt and the more respect I had for the real experts. I mean, how is a person like me supposed to get her chocolate-filled head around the idea of six dimensions? Or the fact that the faster you move the slower you age? [Or is it the other way round? You know, the physics that says if you took identical twins and put one in a spaceship and sent him as close as possible to the speed of light, and left the other one on Earth, they would be different ages when the first one had finished his journey? WHAT??? Blimey, give me publishing any day.]

    Yep, it was all a whole lot less confusing when I didn't know any physics. When I just thought that if the Earth wasn't flat it made a pretty good job of seeming like it, except in Scotland where it's more hilly, especially when I'm cycling. Ignorance wasn't exactly bliss, but it at least wasn't difficult to manage. After all, the world continued to spin without my knowing why or with what effect on my molecules.

    The analogy between the science and the writing/publishing knowledge holds in another way, too: even the flipping experts disagree about things. Hell hath no fury like two scientists disagreeing about The Theory of Everything [or TOE, as they quaintly call it]. So, just as the physicists disagree about whether string theory holds the key to Everything, so publishing "experts" will disagree about whether a synopsis should be two pages or one. Or four with biogs.

    But the most important way in which this analogy works is this:

    It doesn't bloody well MATTER! [Pun intended.] See, whether the physical world has six dimensions or the more visible three, whether string theory explains what Newtonian physics and Einstein's relativity theories couldn't, whether the Hadron collider is going to tell us anything, or not, we ordinary people will carry on waking up and eating breakfast. So will the physicists, actually, and though they may think their cereal is in a different dimension, it still gets soggy when you leave the milk on too long. And whether agents want synopses that fit these rules or those rules, readers [including agents and publishers] still just want great books.

    See, the hoops we authors have to jump through are only there to make life easier  -  easier for the agent and publisher to find the books they can sell most happily to the readers who are there waiting for them. Trouble is that the hoops make it all look so damned hard.

    Remember how I said earlier in this post:  
    After all, if you just think, "The agent / publisher wants a great book and I've written one, so I'll send it to her and she'll love it," it's so simple, isn't it?

    Well, it's true. It is simple. If you have written a great book, and if you send it to the right agent or publisher in a sensible way and happen to hit lucky with your timing, it is that simple. There are, amongst all the weird and conflicting advice, only a very few rules that you need:
    1. Be a reader: so that you know how books and readers work.
    2. Write the best book you can. Write it for readers and think about your reader while writing it.
    3. Submit your work sensibly and reasonably. Don't over-analyse or over-complicate the situation: just like any reader, agents and publishers are looking for a great book. They don't really give a damn whether your synopsis is one page or three, as long as it demonstrates that you've written a book that they can sell and enough readers can love. 
    4. But try, please, please, to make it easy for them to like you and the book. Don't do silly things like putting toffees in with the submission. Just be normal, for crying out loud, like the sort of person you'd like to have a business and personal relationship with. Because that's what it will become.
    So, do the best you possibly can and keep trying to improve your writing and your pitch, learning as you go along. Meanwhile, hold this thought: the longer you fail to get published, the more practice you are putting in. You'll be brilliant by the time you get there!
      I do have one final piece of advice: read Stephen King's On Writing. I have only recently [er, yesterday] read it and it has confirmed and elucidated so many things I already vaguely believed or intuitively knew but wanted to confirm. I'm going to talk more about this book over the next weeks and months. King is a master story-teller and he has managed to write a book on writing that reads like a story itself. There's nothing he doesn't know about narrative drive, and a whole load more besides. If you only read one book on writing, read On Writing.

      It won't confuse you more, I promise. In fact, the more you read of it, the less confusing the whole thing will be. If someone could do the same for physics...