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Sources of inspiration

Where do you get your ideas from?

It’s a question I am asked regularly. And my answer is ‘everywhere’. Considering my profession is writing, I spend much more of my time thinking about what I might write rather than actually noting it down. I am a compulsive thinker – not just that, but I like to replay, analyse, deconstruct, reconstruct, rewind and fast-forward. Occasionally I might even add a soundtrack. I find it difficult to switch off the whirring of my brain, though I have trained myself to get better at it, and my thoughts are widespread and random. I wonder what the cat is thinking on its morning prowl around the back garden. I wonder who made all the things in my house, which hands these objects passed through, and how curious it is that through them I am connected in some small way to hundreds of other stories I won’t ever know. I wonder who first thought of putting vinegar on a potato chip, or chilli in chocolate, and whether they received the recognition they deserved. These thoughts and others zip through my head all day long, and when I’m building a story, occasionally something will linger for a moment, and I’ll connect it to a character, and it eventually becomes part of my book. That’s if I can stop my thoughts long enough to find a pen and write them down. I often seem to have my best eureka moments just before I fall asleep, which is an endless source of frustration. I’m either constantly switching the light on and off to make notes, or trying to repeat ideas like mantras so I might remember them in the morning (which I rarely do).

I can’t ever imagine running out of inspiration, because I can’t see that I’ll ever run out of these streams of questions. And somewhere within my fascination with them, and the possible answers to them, is the place where a story begins to form.

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Don’t get rejected before they’ve even read a word…

writing (2) 75 dpiPeople who work in book publishing always have a ridiculous amount of reading to get through. I once worked on what is pejoratively termed the ‘slush pile’ in the HarperCollins fiction department, where I would often be the first reader. As such, I would get to decide if the story was worth further consideration by those higher up the chain. There were so many submissions I don’t think I was ever on top of it.

So, when submitting your work, to give yourself a head start you need to make your book stand out. Why does the publisher HAVE to read it? (If you’re not sure, how can they be?) Why do you believe in what you are doing? What is it about this book that warrants the attention of the book-buying public? If you are able to provide an agent or publisher with this kind of information BEFORE they look at it, then – as long as they are enthusiastic, of course – you’re a step ahead.

How can you make a potential agent or publisher want to read a script? It’s a big question, and you should take your time and consider your approach. First and foremost you need to stop thinking like a writer and start thinking like a marketeer. Can you condense your story down into one or two awesome sentences? If you can, you’ve developed a pitch, and depending on the policy of the publisher/agent in question, you can use this to get people interested – either on the phone or via cover letters/emails. I realise this can be scary, as you might get an immediate no. But the pitch will remain important right through to the book-buying stage, because in this frenetically paced market you never have very long to grab anyone’s attention.  Don’t start pitching until you’re ready, as a publisher isn’t going to take very seriously the person who develops a new pitch every few weeks. They want to know you are focused and serious about what you are doing.

Do you know which market you’re aiming for? Have you thought about how your book will compete with others on the shelves? Why is it different? Why will readers pick up your travel book on Rome rather than the Lonely Planet’s? If you can give a publisher answers to these kinds of questions (without them having to ask), you will pique their interest. Otherwise, if such questions come up and you have no reply, you will look naïve.

Look at submissions policies very carefully and use them to your advantage. A script that comes in clean, tidy, correctly formatted according to guidelines, and with a concise covering letter will get more attention than the dog-eared, single-spaced tome with a rambling two-page explanation. Are there small embellishments you can use to draw people’s attention – artwork, for example? Be careful with using unusual fonts – only attempt it if they fit the kind of book you are working on, and remember they must still be easily readable. If you make the presentation too much of a challenge for a publisher, you are shooting yourself in the foot before you’ve begun.

Can you do anything else differently to get people’s attention? Your ploys need to be subtle, as at this stage a busy agent/publisher is doing you a favour by reading your work. When I worked in-house we would get writers ringing up demanding why we hadn’t yet got to their synopsis and outline, and that didn’t go down well. Never mind the writing, who wants to work on publishing a book with a stroppy, argumentative author. If you haven’t heard anything for a while, keep your inquiry courteous. You can remind them why they really should read your book, but be careful how far you push.

The submissions stage is one where books and dreams are made or broken. Success is a combination of skill, perseverance, patience and good fortune (and much more besides) – but the only way the final line is ever drawn is the moment you give up. Good luck!

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On pursuing publication

Book pages 1This blog also appeared on the Random House ‘Random Blogs’ website on 9th April 2010

I was recently asked advice on how to become a published writer.

Here’s my take on what it takes:

In general, the more original your concept, the better. But originality must still be able to be placed within the market. Sometimes what’s original to one person can be just a bit too way out to the next reader, so don’t go too far. Alternatively, you may want to follow a trend – vampires, anyone? – but you still need an original take on it. And you need to get the timing right, so the market isn’t oversaturated by the time you finish your book.

You have to really want to succeed, be prepared for knockbacks, not get bogged down in them but use them to make you stronger.

First of all to finish the book. An enormous feat. Then to go over and over it yourself, figuring out how you can make it better. Then to allow other people to do the same.

To learn from those who have been there. Listen to published writers. They can give you so many ideas, and to hear them talk is often inspirational. No one begins life as a published writer, they were all once in unpublished shoes, without exception. Read lots of books. They all have something to inspire you – even if it’s only, ‘I could do better than this!’

Listening skills
Listen to critique. While it’s great to wholly believe in what you have written, it’s also good to remember that your readers might just have a point. Try to look dispassionately at your writing, and pay particular attention if you hear the same comment more than once, even if it’s not what you want to hear.

Put yourself in a busy publisher’s shoes. They have thirty manuscripts. Four meetings that morning. Which should they pick up? I can guarantee you that it will usually be the one sent with a bit of razzmatazz from an agent. So then perhaps you should find an agent. If you decide to go this route, put yourself in their shoes. They have thirty manuscripts. Four meetings that morning. Which should they pick up? The one that’s double-line spaced, interestingly presented, with a quick-to-grasp concept. And a covering letter that stands out. From someone who phoned or emailed first with a great, succinct pitch (although do check what type of contact each agent prefers before doing this)? Or the single-spaced scruffy sheaf of papers, appended to a meandering cover letter, from a person they’ve never heard of or from. I know which I would choose.

And finally: Passion
For the written word. For writing for writing’s sake, not just for publishing’s sake. Because that joy and commitment will be immediately recognisable to the reader, and there is little more compelling than that.

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Finding the time to write

Book pages 1An older version of this blog also appeared on the Random House ‘Random Blogs’ website on 8th April 2010

For me, for a long time my writing was my hobby, and as such I would get through everything else first, promising myself writing time later, as some kind of reward. However, it’s far too easy for that time to never arrive. It was only when I dedicated myself to finishing Come Back to Me at the end of 2007 that I really made the strides forward that I needed to then pursue publication. Now I do try to schedule time to write, but it’s not always easy. I have an active one-year-old little girl, all the general aspects of life to keep going, and my husband would quite like some attention sometimes too, I think. I have just finished my second book, and managed it by making the most of the time my little girl was asleep or my husband was here to care for her, as well as having the help of a wonderful childminder for a few hours a week. (Also invaluable was a well-timed visit by my mother!) Although I used to write at all hours of the day, for now I have to make the most of this dedicated, limited time. I usually have lots of scribbled notes to work through by the time each session comes around, as when I’m busy on other things I still make sure to make notes on ideas so that I can refer back to them later.

As with many other writers, it may well be necessary for me to continue my day job of editing to make a living. Then I will not only have to remind myself to make time for my writing, but to work hard to make sure that time actually happens. When the task at hand seems enormous, I also remind myself to just make a start, and that if I keep doing that every day, one day I’ll reach the finish line! And, if I don’t find the time I need, I may have to look hard at the things I am making time for. I once heard a popular fiction writer in England talking about how if you just turned off EastEnders, a prime-time soap opera that runs for half an hour four nights a week, and used the time to write, in six months you would have a book.  It’s worth thinking about.

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Your editor is on your side

Book pages 2This blog also appeared on the Random House ‘Random Blogs’ website on 6th April 2010

It is always interesting to see how writers respond to editorial guidance. Some are completely open to suggestions, others are not, and there’s a third category who seem to be keen for a critique, but then either don’t like the reality, or don’t seem to alter anything much as a result. What many writers appear to get stuck on is the ‘Well, I like it’, or ‘It has to happen because…’ response. A writer becomes so attached to a piece of writing, or a certain event in their plot, that they will hold on to it come hell or high water. But I believe that the more malleable you see your work, right up to the point it becomes set in print, then the more likely you are to create a better book. This doesn’t mean you have to follow any or all editorial suggestions, because ultimately, and quite rightly, the author has the final say. However, it is worth remembering that editors are there to help you produce the best finished product you can, not to ruin your treasured script! Therefore their comments should not be dismissed too lightly.

That’s the theory, anyway, coming from an editor’s perspective. But how did I go as a writer? Well, I had this experience with Come Back to Me. The book had a prologue, which was the very first thing I wrote for the novel, and I loved it. Every time I reread the prologue, it made me think that maybe, just maybe, I could get this thing published. So when the script came back with a big pencil line streaking across the first page, I did have a bit of a gulp. And, if I hadn’t had an editing background, I would have probably argued passionately for it to remain – because I loved it. However, the thing is, while I felt it was a fine piece of writing, it interfered with something more important: it delayed the real start to my story. So when I’d had a few minutes to think about it, I knew the editor was right. The prologue was a personally beloved part of an earlier draft, but it didn’t belong in the finished piece. So out it went. And the book is better for it.