Rewriting and Editing

Rejection and the Writing Life

sally go
sally go

I’ve been writing full time for over twelve years now. In that time I’ve published number one bestselling novels for adults (Always the Bridesmaid) and children’s books that have been shortlisted for awards (Ask Amy Green series, Sally Go Round the Stars) but I’ve had book ideas turned down by my publishers and have started several novels that will never (and should never in most cases!) see the light of day.

When books are turned down –rejected – it can be a real blow to your confidence but it’s part of every writer’s job to dream up new books. Some will work and others won’t. Other times the idea is good but the market isn’t strong enough to make it worthwhile for the publisher to take it on.

Award winning author, Sheena Wilkinson says the ‘standard story is of rejections and then the magic yes. But another story is after that. When you keep writing better books, have a track record of awards and good reviews, but not great sales, and then get rejections. I think people are less willing to talk about that. And perhaps less prepared for it.’ I agree, it can be tough and all professional writers experience it.

Sometimes we have to ‘reject’ our own work, and it takes guts to admit that the book we have been working on for months or even years isn’t good enough. About ten years ago I wrote a long 100k adult novel and I was gutted when I realised – after some honest feedback from a trusted industry friend – that I’d have to start again with a different idea.

Recently I’ve been asked am I still writing for adults (my last novel, The Memory Box came out in 2013) and the answer is a resounding yes, absolutely. I’ve been working on a new novel for almost three years now. I’ve rewritten it many, many times (seven? eight? nine? I’ve lost count!).

The working title is The Boathouse at Summercove and it’s partly set in 1934 and is quite different to my previous novels. I’ve never worked so hard or enjoyed writing for adults so much. It’s been a fantastic challenge. And kudos to my amazing agent, Peta who has been tirelessly working on it with me and cheering me on from the sidelines. I’m determined to repay all her time, energy and expertise by putting my heart and soul into the rewriting.

I’ve also been teaching creative writing in the Irish Writers Centre which I adore. I can tell instantly which writers will make it to publication and is not always the best writers (although beautiful writing is of course a bonus). It’s the women and men who are determined to see the book through, who take feedback on board, who are happy to rewrite and who will keep rewriting with the dogged determination you need to get a book up to scratch for submission.

I’m working with one particular writer at the moment who is good humoured, hard working and incredibly funny, on paper and in person. And I know her book will be published as she is determined to make it happen and is willing to put the work in. She has that vital quality, resilience, the ability to bounce back.

To have a successful writing career you need self-belief, energy, dedication and above all, resilience. The skin of a rhino also helps!

If you have been turned down, if you’ve faced rejection after rejection, remember this – you only need to find one person who loves your work, one editor who believes in you. One.

There will be many speed bumps along the way but you are not alone. Every writer has faced rejection. All writers get turned down. Don’t believe me? Read on, my friend. And a huge thank you to all the writers who shared their stories with me via Facebook.

Yours in writing,

SarahXXX

Rejection Tales

Sarah Webb

My first book, Kids Can Cook was turned down by most of the Irish publishers – O’Brien Press, Gill and Macmillan, Mercier, Poolbeg – before finding a home at the small but wonderful Children’s Press. Sadly they are no longer in existence but it paved the way for future books and I will always be grateful to the editor, Reena Dardis for taking a chance on me.

Philip Ardagh

Philip Ardagh
Philip Ardagh

When I was in my early twenties, I sent many an unsolicited manuscript or sample chapters to publishers. On most occasions, I received variations on the standard rejection letter but it was much harder when they asked to see more, which I then sent them, and THEN they rejected it. And, in the pre-e-mail era, when sending a manuscript involved brown envelopes and trips to the Post Office, the time between sending in work and receiving a response seemed unbearably long. I received most encouragement from Joanna Goldsworthy at Gollancz who, over the years, wrote me a number of encouraging letters on a manual typewriter and surprising small pieces of headed paper. She praised what I'd written, explained why it wasn't quite working for her, and always asked to see what I came up with next. Looking back, I wish I'd been more profuse in my thanks for her time. And what did I learn from all this rejection? Not to be in a hurry to send out a new piece of writing; to let it ferment, even when I thought it done, and to come back to it with a new set of eyes. But what I learned most of all was that I wasn't going to let rejection stop me on my path to publication. I'm pretty sure I was born a writer and that, over years of writing, I've become a better one, but rejection showed me that I was determined to become a published one. Over 100 books later, I'm still going.

book of learning 1
book of learning 1

ER Murray

The Book of Learning was rejected so many times I shelved it and wrote something else, believing it was the book that got me my agent. After finishing Caramel Hearts, I reread TBOL & still believed in it. Both books went on submission, and both books got signed. Belief, timing, and determination are key.

Oisin McGann

I was turned down by eight or nine agents in the UK at the start (I didn't even get as far as the publishers), but as an illustrator, I was already used to hearing 'no' and just moving on to the next job. As Philip says, most of them were standard rejection letters. One woman in Curtis Brown took an early interest in the first draft of 'The Harvest Tide Project', which to be fair, was in a very unrefined state, and gave me some helpful advice, but then turned it down after I'd refined it.

Oisin McGann
Oisin McGann

I finally signed five contracts with the O'Brien Press without an agent – two Mad Grandad books and three novels – after pitching for some illustration work from them and then writing the MG books because they had nothing for me to illustrate - they liked one of the styles I worked in. Thirty-five books later, written and illustrated, with numerous publishers and I still get rejections sometimes. I never take it personally.

Dave Rudden

knights of the borrowed
knights of the borrowed

Twenty five agents said no to Knights of the Borrowed Dark (now a bestseller  in Ireland - Sarah) before one said yes! I was actually rereading the letters this morning. No horror stories - most were form, with a couple more in-depth. Actually still waiting for a couple to respond but that was three years ago so... I think it was probably a no...

Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick

Back in the day when you sent physical mock-ups of picture book manuscripts to publishers I remember the postman brought me four parcels in three days. He thought it was my birthday and wondered why I had such a puss on me... I had just spent an encouraging two weeks visiting publishers in London with 4 different book ideas and now they were arriving back, no after no after no. 4 parcels returned = 16 rejections in 3 days... Three of the books did eventually get published years (and many more rewrites and rejections) later. And, yes, I still get rejections.

Judi Curtin

This all sounds so familiar. My first novel was rejected multiple times, and was only published after I'd written and published another one. Even after the success of Alice and Eva, I've had a number of rejections . Still hurts but not at all as bad as when I was starting out.

Gordon Smith

I wrote my first novel when I was eighteen, a really gory horror novel called Asylum, about angels that ate people. I was so utterly convinced that this novel was going to make me a millionaire that I stopped working on my A-levels, and consequently failed them (I had to stay in school an extra year). At the same time I was doing my exams, I sent this novel to three publishers, because I knew that one of them would offer me a million pounds to publish my book. I mean, I was so sure of it that I didn't even really check to see if they even published horror. Anyway, at the same time I got my exam results back I started to get rejection letters that were actually pretty harsh ("what is wrong with you?"). It was a pretty gruesome book... I was so devastated that I actually stopped writing for SEVEN YEARS. It never occurred to me to send it to another publisher, to keep trying, or maybe to just write something else. I thought I had failed. It taught me the most important lesson in life, never give up–a lesson I sadly only learned at the end of those seven years. It also taught me that even your failures are vital, because that book that I thought was a failure was a hugely important part of my writing life. It was the first novel I'd ever completed, it taught me that I had it in me to actually finish a story. I learned so much from the experience, even if I didn't acknowledge it at the time. I know now that those stories I wrote as a teenager, the ones that never got published, which I thought had failed me, were actually the building blocks of the success I have today. If I hadn't laid the foundations as a teenager, I wouldn't be able to write the books I do now!

Liz Nugent

After the first 19 rejections of Unravelling Oliver, I asked my agent not to tell me until she sold it. My mum stopped reading books in protest. (Liz’s book went on to be a huge bestseller in Ireland – Sarah)

Roisin Meaney

My first two books were published without a single rejection: the first won a write a bestseller competition that Tivoli was running and the prize was a two book deal. I then wrote a third book, feeling like God's gift to readers - and just as I got to the end of it, Tivoli (who had verbally agreed to take it) went out of business. My agent then did the rounds of Irish publishers, and to a man (and woman) they rejected it. I was gutted: rejection feels like a vicious thump in the belly - but it was a very valuable lesson, and it put manners on me. After my wounds had been thoroughly licked I chanced writing another book, and this was picked up by Hachette, who were Hodder Headline at the time. But I've never taken publishing deals for granted since. And the rejected book? It was years before I was able to press the delete key and consign it to a literary grave!

Jo Cotterill

Jo Cotterill
Jo Cotterill

Back before I was published, I wrote a story about a knight. It was 6000 words long and, I thought, aimed at the 6-9 market. I'd done my research, you see, read the Writer's & Artist's Yearbook cover to cover, and I knew enough to know I needed to age band my own submissions. I was very, very fond of this story. It made me laugh and it made my family laugh, and so I had high hopes that it might find a home. It was turned down everywhere - with one exception. An editor at Bloomsbury thought it might work better as a picture book. Of course I was prepared to try to do this, even though I wasn't sure it would work. I cut down the story to just over 1000 words and sent it off to the editor. It took a long time for her to reply - perhaps four months. And then she wasn't sure. I tried pruning it still further (back then, picture books could be longer than publishers like now) and re-sent. Again, I waited for a response. I can't remember how many times I re-wrote and re-submitted. After a year of doing this, I finally got up the courage to ask the editor if she was actually going to accept the book or not. She still 'wasn't sure'. But by now I'd been working on it for over a year, with no contract, and I was fed up. I said if she couldn't offer a contract, I would withdraw and try my luck elsewhere. My bluff was called. She apologised for not being able to offer a contract, but said she still didn't think it was 'strong enough'.

It's about fifteen years later and I still haven't sold the book. I'd love to one day. I submitted it to a publisher of early readers last year and although they liked it, they 'already had a book about knights'.

But I learned a lot about the publishing process, about how authors sometimes bend over backwards to please a publisher in order to get that desperately-wanted contract and about the awful feeling of nausea when it doesn't come. I also learned that books often have a particular 'shape': I don't think this story would ever work as a picture book and as a more experienced writer now, I can see why. The humour comes from the language and the context, which would have been too pruned in a picture book.

I am very grateful to that editor, even though I felt I'd been left dangling for months on end, and she finally rejected the story. The whole experience taught me that patience was going to be the most valuable asset in my publishing career - and it still is!

Mary Murphy

I don't mind straightforward rejection, when a publisher says 'This is nice, but not for us'. (And I don't even try to read between the lines on that.)

But I had two rejections that stand out for me as having more impact. Both were rejected at the acquisitions stage. Both happened within the last four years.

Both were with publishers that showed interest in my work, and who asked for specific developments on an idea I had sent them. We co-operated over months. In both cases the design/editorial team invested a lot in the project, and so did I.

One rejection was because the publisher was publishing a similar title by a better-known author. The other was because the editorial team felt the book would only work if I did a series of about 4 (and I agreed). The acquisitions felt that was too big a risk, as I had not worked with them before - but also saw it would not work to do a one-off title.

I think what was difficult about these rejections was the exhaustion. I felt unable to go further with the ideas, or to approach another publisher - I had spent my energy/creative budget already.

My approach now is to say no to development work without a development fee. Publishing is changing, it's common for editors not to have acquisitions power. So I protect myself from acquisitions and sales by asking for a development fee, which means the editorial team need to investigate the reality more thoroughly because they have to do some accounts and form-filling. So far, so good.

Staying Motivated - Writing Tips for January

My New Children's Novel, Out in March 2016
My New Children's Novel, Out in March 2016

Hello, January. I've been expecting you. I'm currently in the middle of several projects - a proposal for a new children's series (writing good proposals takes a long time - I'll blog about it soon as it's vital to get your proposal right), the first book in that new series, a book about whales and dolphins (non fiction), writing the text for my book festival brochure (Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival in March), and researching a new novel for adults.

I find starting projects the easy part, it's hitting the half way mark that I find most difficult. So here are some words for those of you who are mid way through a project and need some motivation.

Many writers get to around 40k or 50k words and then they hit a wall (novels for adults tend to be around 80k to 100k depending on the genre). They say ‘There is so much more to write, so much more work involved, I don’t think I can do this.’ It’s important to note that all writers have off days or weeks, published or unpublished, and it’s important to develop a ‘writing habit’ if you want to finish a whole book. As Clare Dowling says in her excellent writing tips (below) ‘writing is a craft and the best way to learn it is to practice.’

But how do you stay motivated?

All writers find writing a book tough going. I often hit a difficult patch roughly half way through a book, knowing that I still have a lot of work ahead of me. It’s perfectly normal to feel a bit overwhelmed at any stage of the writing process. You are writing a book after all. And if you are a huge reader like me, you have a responsibility to both yourself and the future reader to produce something worthwhile, something special, something original.

Woody Allan once said that ‘90% of success is just showing up’. And for writers, showing up at the page day after day, week after week is vital. For some, the effort proves too much, and the book never gets finished.

Here are some of my favourite quotes about motivation and staying the course:

The mere habit of writing, of constantly keeping at it, of never giving up, ultimately teaches you how to write. Gabriel Fielding

The only certainty about writing and trying to be a writer is that it has to be done, not dreamed of or planned and never written, or talked about, but simply written; it’s a dreadful, awful fact that writing is like any other work. Janet Frame

The way to write a book is to actually write a book. Anne Enright

And I particularly like this one, also by Anne Enright:

Remember if you sit at your desk for 15 or 20 years every day it changes you. It just does. It may not improve your temper but it fixes something else. It makes you more free.

She is quite right, it does change you. It does make you more free.

If you’re finding writing difficult and need some encouragement, here are some suggestions:

1/ Keep a writing diary

My Diary Collection 1986 to 2015
My Diary Collection 1986 to 2015

Every time you’ve finished writing, jot down how many words you’ve managed and how you feel your work is progressing. If you respond well to deadlines, keep deadlines. For example: Monday – write 500 words, Tuesday – finish Chapter Two. If you’ve stuck to your deadlines reward yourself with some television or a bar of chocolate.

2/ Attend writing workshops, readings and talks

Many libraries host regular events for writers. Check your local library for details. I love hearing other writers read their work or talk about their work, and I always learn something valuable or that makes me think. It’s a real treat to be around fellow book lovers too.

3/ Read books about writing:

On Writing by Stephen King

Inspiring and full of good advice – worth buying

The Right to Write by Julia Cameron

One of the best books about being a writer and living a writer’s life I’ve ever found. Succinct, direct and truthful, a book I come back to over and over again if I’m in need of a little writerly pick me up.

4/ Pencil in some internet free days. I check my social media accounts on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I spend one hour on each of these days writing blogs/content for posts, reading and commenting on other people's posts and replying to my messages. That's three hours a week. I check in after working hours too, but I don't waste my writing time online. Perhaps you could set yourself some internet 'rules' too.

If your writing has come to a standstill and you need some practical assistance the following might help:

1/ Ask for advice and/or encouragement from a respected friend or work colleague; someone who loves reading and who will give you an honest but kind opinion. Explain that you need honest feedback, but ask them to be kind. If you don’t know anyone suitable, see number 3.

2/ Join a writers’ group

Many libraries host regular writers’ groups. These are not for everyone, but many writers swear by them. Many published writers are in writing groups, others have writing friends who they talk to about their work and any problems they are having. I have several writer friends and they are a Godsend. Writing can be a lonely old business, and having someone to talk to who understands is very important. Seek out fellow writers on the internet or in person.

3/ Contact a writer’s advisory service

For a professional opinion on your work, the following advisory services are recommended – www.cornerstones.co.uk/  and www.inkwellwriters.ie

Inkwell are based in Ireland, Cornerstones in the UK and both are excellent, well respected professionally run organisations.

On the Practical Side of Things

Even if you don’t feel like writing try to do something writing related: research, editing, making notes. Sometimes you may be simply too mentally tired or out of sorts to write, never force yourself, take a break and come back to it the following day instead. Try to approach the page with optimism and enthusiasm, not dread! Sometimes you will have to talk yourself into a positive frame of mind, but you’re a writer – you are smart, creative and powerful. If you can create a whole world on paper, you can certainly cajole yourself into a bit of writing.

Never use ‘I’m too busy’ as an excuse. Your house will probably be less tidy and sometimes the dishes will sit in the sink for the evening, but these are the sacrifices a writer has to make!

Once you’ve set your writing time aside try to sit down at your desk regularly so your story will stay fresh in your mind. If you can’t write every day, think about your characters and your plot when you can. Agatha Christie once said she did her best plotting while washing the dishes.

Try to write at a desk or table in a well lit and if possible quiet area. Buy yourself nice notebooks and coloured pens – these small things make writing more of a pleasure.

If possible get your hands on a computer. Typing directly onto a computer takes a while to get used to but it makes writing and most especially editing so much less painful – plus you have spell check!

How long does it take to write a book?

The old expression ‘how long is a piece of string’ springs to mind. Each writer is different. Popular fiction writers are often contracted to write a book a year. If you can manage to write 2,000 words a week for example, it will take you just under a year to write a whole book. Try to find a writing pace that suits you and your lifestyle.

The honest fact? I can’t motivate you to write. No-one can do that but yourself. If you want to write badly enough, you will find the time and the energy.

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

Tips on Staying Motivated by Clare Dowling

1/ Get into the habit of writing. This doesn’t mean you have to knock out a thousand words of a novel a day; it can be emails, letters to friends, or a description of your cat. Writing is a craft and the best way to learn it is to practise.

2/ Get yourself a proper writing space. Some people can write a book on the kitchen table amongst the dinner dishes but most of us can’t. It really helps if you have a special place for writing and when you arrive at it, your brain clicks into writing mode.

3/ Don’t wait for genius to strike. It probably won’t, and you’ll achieve tonnes more if you spent your time practising your writing, developing interesting characters, and thinking hard about what you’d really like to say. Most successful writers aren’t published because brilliant ideas visit them on a daily basis, but because they work very hard and stay motivated.

4/ Read, read, read. We can all learn from other authors’ work – how they construct a plot, how characters are effectively drawn; how they manage to make a scene in a supermarket the most memorable you’ve read all year. Don’t be afraid that you’re going to copy their style; you won’t. But you might find that that you learn lots of new techniques that will lift your own writing up a level.

See the writing.ie article I contributed to here.

Writing Tips from Award Winning Author, Sheena Wilkinson

Writing Tips from Sheena Wilkinson

Sheena Wilkinson with Elaina Ryan of CBI and Writer, Deirdre Sullivan
Sheena Wilkinson with Elaina Ryan of CBI and Writer, Deirdre Sullivan

See Sheena at the Mountains to Sea Book Festival (details below)

  1. Everyone will say the same thing here; that’s because it’s so important. READ. Read everything. Read in your favourite genre and outside it. Read to see how stories work. Read to remind yourself that books are magic, and that you want to create that magic for someone else.
  2. Find out what works for you. I faffed around with unfinished novels for years because I kept stopping to edit as I went along, always aiming for that perfect first chapter. For me, it’s better to write to the end of a rough first draft and then go back and redraft, and redraft, and redraft. It’s less work in the long run, and for me having a complete draft, even though it’s rubbishy, gives me a feeling of achievement and something to work on. This seems to work for lots of writers. It may not work for you but it’s worth trying if, like me until about six years ago, you find it hard to get to the end. And the first drafts are getting better.
  3. Give yourself goals. It may be that you’ll write for an hour a day, or that you’ll finish a sort story by the end of the month, or that you’ll do a thousand words a day, or 500 or even 100. You can move the goalposts as you get more serious. If I think about the whole project of a novel, I feel a bit gulpy and want to go and lie down, but if I think that I aim to do 6,000 words a week and that means 1,000 words day with a day off, that seems more manageable. I have printed off a geeky calendar so I can waste time filling it in and adding happy/sad faces accordingly. You can get software to do this for you, but why bother, when you can use up hours of writing time colouring in and highlighting?
  4. Fall in love. With your book. I can’t get into something and spend a year – or, in the case of my forthcoming novel, 2 ½ years (I took time off to write another book in the middle) – on it unless I love it. So don’t follow the market or write about something because you think you ‘should’: write what you love. It helps to have a bit of  a crush on at least one character. BUT, however in love you are…
  5. Don’t be precious! You know how being in love is great, but it can make you a bit blind to someone’s actual qualities? That. So when your editor/agent/writing buddy/mum suggests that something in your book could maybe work better, consider that they might be right. After all, you want them to fall in love with your book too.

Sheena will be appearing on the Going Too Far? Panel Discussion at the Mountains to Sea Book Festival 2014 with debut novelist, Louise O'Neill, David O'Callaghan from Eason, reviewer and writer, Mary Arrigan and reader, Aaron Williams.

A must for anyone interested in writing or reading YA fiction.

Saturday 13th September, Lexicon, Dun Laoghaire (new library) 4.40-6pm

e8 adults/e5 students

Book an Appointment with The Writing Doctors - 4th April

east coast fm balloon
east coast fm balloon

Exclusive Slots with with The Writing Doctors, Vanessa O'Loughlin and Sarah Webb at East Coast FM's Coffee Morning in Aid of Wicklow Cancer Support Services The Beach House, Greystones Friday 4th April 10am to 12pm e10 for a 15 minute session with Vanessa or Sarah (e20 for 30 minutes) - please pay at the door (all money will be donated to cancer support services in Co Wicklow)

Writing a book and want to know how to get it published? Looking for the right literary agent? Or just need some writing help? Join publishing and writing experts, Vanessa and Sarah for some expert advice.

Vanessa runs the highly successful writing website, writing.ie and is also a literary scout for several UK and Irish agents; Sarah is an experienced writer and writing teacher. Together they are the Writing Doctors. If they can't fix your book, no-one can!

To book a time slot with Sarah or Vanessa (4th April, 10-12, The Beach House, Greystones) please email Sarah before 3rd April - sarah at sarahwebb dot ie - stating which Writing Doctor you'd like to see and your ideal time – 10.00, 10.30, 11.00, 11.30 etc Places are limited, please book asap

(Last year over e46,000 was raised for cancer support services in the Wicklow area – please help this year by attending one of the coffee mornings or our clinic and bring your friends. PS There will be a certain Irish X Factor singer entertaining the troops in Greystones - so come early!)

Words of Wisdom from 3 of Ireland’s Top Children’s Editors

Are You the Next Judi Curtin?
Are You the Next Judi Curtin?

This week I invited three editors to speak to my writing class at the Irish Writers’ Centre: Helen Carr from the O’Brien Press, Grainne Clear from Little Island and David Maybury from Penguin and Brown Bag Films. All wonderfully honest and entertaining speakers.

Here are some notes from their talk – I hope you find them useful. All three editors take (and actively encourage) unsolicited manuscripts – check their various publishers’ websites for submission details.

 How They Decide What to Publish

Helen Carr explained that she’s looking for ‘the new Derek Landy’ – great fantasy/action adventure for age 9+, books for girls a la Judi Curtin and Anna Carey, YA books like John Green’s. No pressure then! She keeps a close eye on the newspapers, trade press and social media – to see what’s topical and what people are talking about.

 Writers and Social Media

All editors agreed that having a social media presence is vital for emerging and established writers alike. The first thing they all do when they read a manuscript they are considering is to google the author. A well written blog or website is a bonus; odd things on their Facebook/Twitter feeds is a no no. So keep it relevant and PG, folks if you want to write for children.

 The Cover Letter

They all emphasised the importance of a good cover letter – clear, short and well thought out. Find out the editor’s name and address your submission to them directly. Always type your cover letter. Do no open the letter with ‘Hi! I’m Molly McGolly and I LOVE children.’ Grainne Clear says that she ‘judges people on their cover letter’. David Maybury says to avoid the ‘my mum/class/sister loves this book!’ Don’t put in anything too personal and only include relevant information. The fact that you are a teacher/librarian/bookseller is relevant; the fact that you studied science/accounting/languages at college is not (unless your book is related to this).

 The Importance of a Strong Opening

If the editors like the covering letter, they will read the first 50 or so pages of the book. But no more. If they like your  book after reading 50 pages, they will read on, if they don't they will put it aside and move on to the next manuscript. So make your opening as strong as you can, grip the reader in the opening sentences and don’t let them go.

 The Importance of Dialogue

Helen Carr says good dialogue is timeless. All the editors look for strong, sharply written dialogue. All dislike adverbs (he said longingly, she shouted loudly) and Grainne Clear mentioned the fact that you can’t laugh out a sentence. Avoid ‘It’s a fine mess,’ she laughed. When in doubt, she/he said is the default.

 Digital Road Testing

throne of glass
throne of glass

David Maybury is happy for writers to test out their writing on sites like Wattpad. He says this works especially well for YA novels and for younger writers. He mentioned the success of Throne of Glass by Sarah J Maas, which started life on www.fictionpress.com.

 Unsolicited Manuscripts

All three editors accept and encourage (good, well written) unsolicited manuscripts. David Maybury from Penguin is sent over 30 Irish manuscripts a week. It takes the editors several months to read manuscripts – so be patient. And be professional at all times. An email or phone call to see where your manuscript is in the process is fine, hassling or stalking is certainly not. You want to come across as a person who is good to work with.

The good news is that all three are actively looking for new voices. Maybe 2014 will be your year. Good luck!

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

Mistakes, Failure and Writing Faith

I was in London last week (talking to one of my publishers about a new book for 2014 - more about that soon) and I picked up a copy of Psychologies Magazine at the airport. I don't often get the time to read magazines so it was a real treat. After my meeting I lay down on my hotel bed and flicked through the articles. There was a great conversation between Joanne Froggatt (Anna in Downton Abbey) and Irvine Welsh. Joanne is starring in his new film, Filth.

During the interview they discussed failure and making mistakes. 'We've all got to be prepared to make mistakes,' Joanne said. 'My dad has a very Northern saying - "Them that never do 'owt, never do 'owt wrong".'

Irvine agreed with her. 'Life is all about making mistakes,' he said. 'What's the phrase? Try again. Fail again. Fail bigger (sic). Fail better. One of the most horrible things in life would be not to be able to fail again.'

ever tried
ever tried

The phrase he quoted is one of my favourites in fact - it's by Samuel Beckett and it's a great mantra for writers.

So often we decide not to try something for fear of failure.

I won't write that blog because it won't be as good as/as funny as so and so's blog.

I find writing short stories really hard so I won't even try.

Poetry? That's for intellects.

I can't write that time travel book because I'm not sure how to plot it. I'm scared it will be rubbish.

These are my own personal writing fears and there are plenty more where they came from.

What are YOU afraid of?

Not being a good enough writer?

Not being as good as (fill in any name you like here)?

Being laughed at?

Being rejected?

Getting published? Because then you'll have a whole new set of problems and worries.

We all have our own set of writing fears.

Next month I will start writing that children's time travel novel. I have no idea how it will turn out, but I'm willing to give it a go. It may work, it may not, but at least I'll have tried.

What will you be doing? Worrying about failure? Or taking a giant leap of writing faith?

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

My Brilliant Young Editors - and How to Be One

Sarah with some young readers
Sarah with some young readers

Since my first book for age 10+ (Ask Amy Green: Boy Trouble) I’ve been working with young editors. My first young editors were Emma and Kate. They read an early manuscript of Boy Trouble and gave me some valuable feedback. They are both now in first year at college and Kate is studying English and hopes to be a writer some day.

For the past two years I’ve held a Young Editor Competition to find new readers to help me edit the Amy Green books. In 2011 Yazmin and Anna won the competition and gave me useful feedback on Ask Amy Green: Dancing Daze.

I asked Anna about her experience and this is what she said:

1/ Did you enjoy being one of my Young Editors?

Yes, it gave me a chance to see what it’s like and helped me decide if I want to take writing up as a career choice.

2/ Was it hard work?

I didn’t think it was especially hard; the only worrying/hard bit was reading the book in time and giving the feedback that I thought would be useful.

3/ What did you learn about writing a book?

I learnt that it’s not as easy as I thought as you have to do multiple drafts and changes before getting to the final copy.

4/ Would you like to edit another book in the future?

Yes, or maybe even write one of my own . . .

5/ Do you have any tips for Amy Green fans entering the new Young Editor Competition (2013)?

My tips are to give your honest opinion and say lots of likes and dislikes - some people might be afraid of telling the dislikes but don’t be afraid as it helps the writer a lot. (She’s quite right too!)

This year I had five young editors as they all sent in such good entries to the Young Editor Competition - Alice, Niamh, Iseult, Ellen and Sophie. Here is some of their feedback (they worked on Wedding Belles):

The Latest Amy Green Book
The Latest Amy Green Book

Niamh: First of all, this was actually my favourite book out of the series. I think it was because you could see how all the characters have developed since the start of the series. Amy has grown up a lot. We can see this through her relationships with all the characters in the book but especially with Seth and Clover. Amy's a great character because she's not perfect but she tries to do what's right and you still root for her.

Iseult: I really enjoyed the experience of being a young editor for this book. I have to admit it was really hard work and sometimes I felt like giving up. The way I have edited is I read it once and then I read it again and if I found anything that I found confusing or something I didn’t understand I’d write a note about it. Overall the book was really great and brought a tear to my eye at the end.

girls jumping
girls jumping

 How Would You Like to be One of My New Young Editors (2013)?

All you have to do is to log onto www.askamygreen.com and click on the Young Editor Competition button and tell me in 300 words or less why you like Wedding Belles (the new Ask Amy Green book), who your favourite character is and why. Enter before 30th November. Good luck!

Yours in books, Sarah X

(This blog first appeared on the Girls Heart Books website)

Behind The Memory Box - Q and A with Sarah Webb

I did this Q and A recently for a UK website, I hope you like it. 1. Tell us about your new book The Memory Box.

Just published
Just published

My latest novel, ‘The Memory Box’ is the story of an Irish woman, Pandora Schuster who on the eve of her thirtieth birthday discovers that she may have her mum’s heredity cancer gene, Breast Cancer Gene 1. This sends her into a complete tail spin, and makes her question her life and also the future of her nine-year-old daughter, Iris. Pandora is a single mum and she has never told Olivier, her ex-boyfriend that he has a daughter. So she travels to Paris to find him, with disastrous consequences.

2.       Why did you decide to take the book over to Paris?

Pandora is passionate about clothes and it made sense for her to study fashion in Paris. Plus it’s one of my favourite cities in the world.

3.       Did you spend any time there to write about your surroundings?

Yes, I spent four months in Paris during college, working in McDonald’s, so that was helpful. I’ve been back a few times since then, most recently for my 40th birthday.

4.       Do you have a memory box in your life?

No, but I do have a large chest full of my children’s school books, drawings, craft, photographs. I’m very much a hoarder.

5.       Why was a memory box such a good device for story telling for this book?

The Memory Box was a way of unfolding Pandora’s past life for the reader without using an excessive amount of flashbacks. The letters Pandora writes to her daughter, Iris and puts in the box give the reader glimpses of Pandora’s life in Paris and her deep love for Olivier.

And then the box is accidentally discovered. I won’t say any more in case you'd like to read it.

amy6
amy6

6.       You have recently published another book in the Amy Green series, so what can you tell us about this?

Yes, Wedding Belles has just been published. It’s the 6th book in the Ask Amy Green series, about a 13 year old Irish girl and her 17 year old crazy aunt, Clover who works as an agony aunt for a teen magazine. Together they are planning Amy’s mum’s second marriage in this book, but things start to go horribly wrong …

7.       How much do you have to look into Pandora’s hereditary illness for the book?

I took the research very seriously. I read cancer memoirs, including Emma Hannigan’s excellent ‘Talk to the Headscarf’. I read blogs and forums about cancer and most especially Breast Cancer Gene 1, the gene that Pandora may have (she’s waiting for the test results during the book). I also spoke to a breast cancer specialist, an amazing woman consultant surgeon called Sarah Rastell, who very kindly read my manuscript for accuracy.

I also tried to ‘feel’ how Pandora would feel while waiting for her test results – anxious, scared, alone, but yet determined to fight. Emotional truth is also vital and a character’s reactions must be honest and believable.

8.       Tell us about your inspiration behind the story.

I’m not sure where the story came from to be honest. I’d read about the breast cancer gene and it just fitted this story. The characters grew and developed as I wrote the book and some of their passions are also my passions – art, family, Paris.

9.       What is your writing process?

I plan a little to start with, then I think about the characters and their motivation obsessively. I do some early research at this stage also – but I often don’t know what I need to know, so I don’t spend too long on this at the early stages of writing. Once I’m happy that I know my characters well I start to write, leaving gaps where I need to do some more detailed research – I add that in later. I write several drafts – between 5 and 8 – and learn a lot more about my plot and characters during this stage of writing.

10. What is next for you?

I’m currently working on the first book in a new children’s series for age 9+ and I’m also writing a new book for adults. Both will be published in 2015, all being well.

Behind The Memory Box - Q and A with Sarah Webb

I did this Q and A recently for a UK website, I hope you like it. 1. Tell us about your new book The Memory Box.

Just published
Just published

My latest novel, ‘The Memory Box’ is the story of an Irish woman, Pandora Schuster who on the eve of her thirtieth birthday discovers that she may have her mum’s heredity cancer gene, Breast Cancer Gene 1. This sends her into a complete tail spin, and makes her question her life and also the future of her nine-year-old daughter, Iris. Pandora is a single mum and she has never told Olivier, her ex-boyfriend that he has a daughter. So she travels to Paris to find him, with disastrous consequences.

2.       Why did you decide to take the book over to Paris?

Pandora is passionate about clothes and it made sense for her to study fashion in Paris. Plus it’s one of my favourite cities in the world.

3.       Did you spend any time there to write about your surroundings?

Yes, I spent four months in Paris during college, working in McDonald’s, so that was helpful. I’ve been back a few times since then, most recently for my 40th birthday.

4.       Do you have a memory box in your life?

No, but I do have a large chest full of my children’s school books, drawings, craft, photographs. I’m very much a hoarder.

5.       Why was a memory box such a good device for story telling for this book?

The Memory Box was a way of unfolding Pandora’s past life for the reader without using an excessive amount of flashbacks. The letters Pandora writes to her daughter, Iris and puts in the box give the reader glimpses of Pandora’s life in Paris and her deep love for Olivier.

And then the box is accidentally discovered. I won’t say any more in case you'd like to read it.

amy6
amy6

6.       You have recently published another book in the Amy Green series, so what can you tell us about this?

Yes, Wedding Belles has just been published. It’s the 6th book in the Ask Amy Green series, about a 13 year old Irish girl and her 17 year old crazy aunt, Clover who works as an agony aunt for a teen magazine. Together they are planning Amy’s mum’s second marriage in this book, but things start to go horribly wrong …

7.       How much do you have to look into Pandora’s hereditary illness for the book?

I took the research very seriously. I read cancer memoirs, including Emma Hannigan’s excellent ‘Talk to the Headscarf’. I read blogs and forums about cancer and most especially Breast Cancer Gene 1, the gene that Pandora may have (she’s waiting for the test results during the book). I also spoke to a breast cancer specialist, an amazing woman consultant surgeon called Sarah Rastell, who very kindly read my manuscript for accuracy.

I also tried to ‘feel’ how Pandora would feel while waiting for her test results – anxious, scared, alone, but yet determined to fight. Emotional truth is also vital and a character’s reactions must be honest and believable.

8.       Tell us about your inspiration behind the story.

I’m not sure where the story came from to be honest. I’d read about the breast cancer gene and it just fitted this story. The characters grew and developed as I wrote the book and some of their passions are also my passions – art, family, Paris.

9.       What is your writing process?

I plan a little to start with, then I think about the characters and their motivation obsessively. I do some early research at this stage also – but I often don’t know what I need to know, so I don’t spend too long on this at the early stages of writing. Once I’m happy that I know my characters well I start to write, leaving gaps where I need to do some more detailed research – I add that in later. I write several drafts – between 5 and 8 – and learn a lot more about my plot and characters during this stage of writing.

10. What is next for you?

I’m currently working on the first book in a new children’s series for age 9+ and I’m also writing a new book for adults. Both will be published in 2015, all being well.

5 Tips - How to Write a Winning Book Blurb

Books are nothing without readers. There are many ways that readers are encouraged to pick up a book in a bookshop or library, or to purchase a book on-line. Catchy or memorable titles are vital. Book covers are also very important. If a book looks attractive and interesting, a customer will pick it up. What do they do then? They turn it over and read the jacket copy or blurb. The blurb is the short description on the back of the book. Sometimes there is also a tag line or shout line on the front or back cover, plus some quotes from reviewers or from other writers.

Here is an example of a shout line, taken from one of my own books: Ask Amy Green: Dancing Daze. The book is for readers of age 10+.

Ask Amy Green: Any problem solved!

And here is the blurb:

Dancing dilemmas . . .

Mills’s ballerina sister has just landed the role of a lifetime – but something is very wrong with the young star.

A worried Mills begs best friend Amy for help. How can Amy refuse, even though she has big problems of her own to solve? Luckily, Clover is happy to lend a hand.

And saving dancing divas is all in a day’s work for the intrepid twosome.

amy5.jpg

There’s also a quote from Cathy Cassidy: ‘A fab and funny read.’

Here’s the blurb of another one of my books, an adult novel this time called The Memory Box (out in September in paperback):

Pandora Schuster is about to turn thirty but that’s the least of her worries. She’s just been tested for a hereditary cancer gene and, expecting the worst, is desperate for her ex-boyfriend and father of nine-year-old Iris to be a part of her daughter’s life.

However there are two major problems: Olivier Huppert lives in Paris and he has no idea that Iris even exists. Pandora tries to find Olivier during her Parisian birthday weekend but it all ends in disaster.

Pandora is determined for Iris to know the truth about her handsome, charismatic father. So she creates a memory box filled with photos, letters and mementoes of the magical time she spent in Paris with Olivier.

But when the past and the present start to collide, Pandora finds herself having to choose between her head and her heart . . .

And the shout line:

Can you ever really forget your first love?

My Latest Book
My Latest Book

Hopefully both my blurbs (and shout lines) tell the potential reader something about the book and make them want to find out more.

So how do you write a really great blurb? Here are some tips:

1/ Read the blurbs of lots of other books that are similar (in genre/age group) to yours. Look at their length and style. Note any that are particularly good and study how they are written.

2/ Keep it short and sweet. You need to draw the reader in quickly and hold their attention. Use key words like ‘secret’, ‘mystery’, ‘betrayal’, ‘revenge’, ‘magic’ to whet a reader’s appetite.

3/ You don’t need to describe the whole plot in the blurb, just give the reader an idea of what the book is about and the main character or characters. Keep your blurb simple yet interesting.

4/ The blurb should be written in a similar voice to the book. If it’s a comedy, the blurb needs to reflect this.

5/ If the book has a strong theme, bring this out in the blurb. Is your book about first love, the enduring bonds of friendship, or betrayal? Is it ‘a deeply moving story of family and friendship’ (from the blurb of A Thousand Splendid Suns), or ‘a deeply affecting coming-of-age story’ (from the blurb of The Perks of Being a Wallflower)?

5/ Remember to edit the blurb carefully. There’s nothing as off-putting as spelling mistakes in a blurb.

Sarah Kettle, Creative Copywriter with Puffin explains how to write a blurb – "read a manuscript, note down words and quotes with instant appeal, atmosphere, an air of mystery, a sense of character, a sense of place and put the all together in a coherent and exciting way. So that whoever picks up the book reads the blurb and thinks ‘I must read this book. I must have this book in my life. To the till we shall go. Immediately.’"

Best of luck writing your blurb!

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

The Most Important Advice I Can Give You About Writing

The Holy Ghosts
The Holy Ghosts

I was at a 40th birthday in London recently and I got talking to the band – lovely Scottish lads called The Holy Ghosts. They have been working their wee socks off, playing gigs and parties all over the UK and Europe. They’re super, their lead singer has buckets of charisma (and an amazing voice) and I know they’ll make it because a/ they’re determined b/ they’re damn good and c/ they’re putting in the hours.

I told them the story about The Beatles playing in Hamburg that I first read in Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. In the book Gladwell explains the 10,000 hours rule – how if you put in the time and work hard, success will follow.

In a nutshell The Beatles performed live in Hamburg, Germany over 1,200 times from 1960 to 1964, amassing more than 10,000 hours of playing time. According to Gladwell the hours and hours that The Beatles spent performing live shaped their talent. He quotes their biographer Philip Norman who said ‘So by the time they returned to England from Hamburg, Germany, they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them.’

Gladwell also talks about Bill Gates and how at the age of 13 in 1968 he spent over 10,000 hours programming on a high school computer.

Putting in the hours. It’s not very exciting, is it? But it’s so important. I think a lot of people starting to write don’t realise how hard writers work to get published and to stay published. How many hours they put in.

Coming up with an idea is the easy bit. Creating characters, plot . . . not so hard. Writing the first few chapters of a manuscript . . . not so difficult either. Finishing a book and then rewriting it over and over again until it’s as perfect as you can make it, that’s the hard part.

I’ve said it before but it’s worth saying again – you learn how to write by writing. By putting in the hours. At night after work, early in the morning before the kids get up, at weekends, on holidays, when you’re on top of the world, when your heart is breaking – you have to keep at it. You have to put in the hours. It’s as simple or as difficult as that.

All the very best for Christmas and 2013. Try to make some time to write over the holidays. And I’ll try to follow my own advice!

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

How Much Planning Should You Do Before Starting a Book?

martina
martina

Martina Reilly

To plot or not to plot? That is an interesting question. Over the years I have realised that it very much depends on what type of person you are.

If you are a planner – if you pack days before going away, if you know exactly where your passport is before travelling, then you’re a planner and you may need to plan your book.

If you pack the hour before leaving for the airport, if you hate planning anything weeks or months before it happens, than you’d probably think planning would kill your book’s spontaneity. And for you it might do just that.

So if you’re a planner like me – you need to plan. I’ve also interviewed a writer who is not a planner – the wonderful Martina Reilly – so you have both views.   So first, Martina’s answers:

Martina, how much planning do you do before starting a book?  

I do no planning at all. I tend to get an idea of what I'd like to explore. In my next book 'What If' I had a few things I wanted to write about. The first, a moment where a life is changed forever (a lot of my books are about such moments, I am unable to get away from that, though in this book it is very obvious what that moment is) and the second thing I wanted to write about was Alzheimers. Having experienced first hand how devastating this disease is, I wanted to write an uplifting story where Lily uses her disease to ask forgiveness from her daughter. But how do you ask for forgiveness when you can barely remember? That was the challenge and so I just dived straight in and began to write.    

Do you do any work on the characters?

  None at all. I suppose I see my characters as people I have been introduced to at a party. If I like them, I leave them in the story and get to know them over the course of nine months or so (the length of time it takes me to write a book). These characters begin to grow week by week as I find out things about them. I then go back to the start of the story and flesh them out using everything I've learned. Some characters are much easier to know than others. In the next book, there is a prickly character called Deirdre, she was a hard one to get right, but to my mind, she is the best character in the book now.

Any story boarding/plotting?  

No! Having said that, diving straight in can be a bit of a disaster sometimes. Maybe about 40,000 words in, I'll discover that the way I'm telling the story is all wrong. I might need to introduce a better/stronger plot (yikes) or I might feel that the book would be much better if it were told from a first person narrative instead of a third person narrative. I fight against it for a while until I KNOW it's not working and then I'll go back and rework. I have found though that it doesn't really hold me up as I get a renewed interest in making the book right and I fly along. The way I write is quite organic, I suppose. I like to surprise myself with the story so that way I hope the reader is surprised too. If I plotted and planned, I think I'd lose the spontaneity with which I write. I'm also a very impulsive person, so plotting and planning would drive me mental.

How much editing do you do after the first draft?

  Very little. I suppose I edit as I go so most of my books (bar three) have been published with very minor changes.

And now I’ll ask myself the very same questions:

Sarah, how much planning do you do before starting a book?

IMG_1863[1]
IMG_1863[1]

Lots! Unlike Martina I can’t start writing a book if I haven’t thought about the characters and the plot for many weeks (even months or years in some cases). Once I have the initial idea – for example ‘a book about a young Irish girl who dreams of being a famous ballerina’ – I grab a yellow A4 notebook and I start jotting down notes. I also collect clippings from magazines and newspapers on the subject and I read extensively around the subject. All these things trigger my own plot ideas and make me more confident that I know what I’m writing about.  

Do you do any work on the characters?  

Yes. I write down everything I know or am starting to find out about the main characters – what they look like, their birthdays, their dreams, hopes, fears . . . I give them names – I love naming characters. Once I find the right name for a character they become much easier to visualise and understand.

Any story boarding/plotting?  

IMG_1862[1]
IMG_1862[1]

Again, yes. I go through the book scene by scene, jotting down notes about what I’d like to happen. This is all very much subject to change, it’s just a way of keeping myself going. It also means that I’m not so frightened about getting ‘stuck’ half way through the book. I always know how the book is going to end – the middle is a little more vague.

How much editing do you do after the first draft?

Again, a lot. I usually do around five or six rewrites, often more, depending on the book. Some books require more rewriting than others. Ask Amy Green: Dancing Daze didn’t require too much rewriting; The Shoestring Club, my latest adult book required quite a bit of rewriting. In fact the first draft is very different to the final book. Pretty much everything changed and I think it’s a much better book for all the thought, planning and rewriting.

So there you go, two writers, two very different approaches. Now which type of writer are you? Do you need to plan or are you happier just sitting down and writing? I’d love to know.

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

(And a big thank you to Martina for giving me her time)

A Map of My Writing Day

I've been writing this 'Yours in Writing' blog for many years now, and I would like to thank all of you for the fantastic feedback and regular comments both here and on Facebook and Twitter. It means a lot to me. To say thank you, I'd like to address some topics that YOU have asked me to cover. The first - and yes, probably the easiest - is my writing routine. When do I write? How many words? Computer or long hand?

Over the next few weeks I will tackle the other questions I've recently been asked - on planning books, getting published for teenagers, what editors are looking for right now and other subjects. If there is something that you would like me to cover, you only have to ask.

So - my writing routine. And thanks to Claire Hennessy for the question, a very experienced writer herself.

snoopy-good-writing-is-hard-work
snoopy-good-writing-is-hard-work

Here's a map of my writing day:

7am  Rise (groggily) and get the kids to school.

8.30am  Get home and start thinking about what I have to do today.

Potter around the house avoiding work, 'tidying', opening mail, checking emails, Twitter and Facebook (terrible I know but best to get it over with early I find so I can get on with my morning! Twitter and Facebook are big distractions but also great fun and I dip in and out during the afternoon when I'm doing my emails and admin etc).

9.30  Walk - think about my current book while doing so (or that's the idea - it doesn't always work out that way - somametimes I end up chatting to my mum or a friend while walking - which is also nice!).

10.30am  Switch off my mobile and take the phone off the hook - my writing computer does not have the internet - which is a Godsend! Sit down at my desk.

Stare into space for a while.

Stare into space some more.

10.45am  Start writing.

I write straight onto my computer (I'm a fairly fast and accurate touch typist) but I do also write a lot of early plot notes/character notes in yellow notebooks. Yes, always yellow!

1.00pm  Collect my son or if he's in after school, stay writing until 2pm.

I aim to write about 2,000 words a day - that's my natural limit. Anything more than that is a bonus but if I don't reach my target I don't beat myself up about it. I write as often as I can, every day if possible - that way it's easier to jump straight back into the story. Otherwise I have to re-read what I've been writing and it slows the process down. Sometimes I stop writing in the middle of a sentence or a thought - I find it easier to pick up the thread of the story that way. It's probaby a bit nuts, but whatever gets you through, right?

In 15 years of writing (10 of those full time) I have always written something when I've sat down at my desk. Even if I'm not feeling great or am having a horrible day/week/month I still manage to write a page or two. I have NEVER left my desk without getting something down.

In the afternoon I deal with my emails (I hate email but it's a necessary evil), answer phone calls, write my blogs (I have two, this one and one on my Amy Green website and also blog for Girls Heart Books), do my event programming and check in with my Facebook and Twitter friends. I also update my website and write any reviews, articles or other bits of writing I've been asked to do.

I also used to work three or four evenings a week, but recently I have stopped this. I'm not as productive as I used to be but it gives me more time to spend with my family.

And that, my friends, is my writing day! I am very blessed to be able to write full time and I would like to thank my readers for making it possible.

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

Writing Worries - Don't Clip Your Own Wings

Apologies for the lack of recent blogs, I was helping to run the Mountains to Sea Book Festival and taking some much needed time off. I wrote the following blog in August, before I sent my new proposal to my agent. More on this at the end. For weeks now I've been worrying about a book proposal. Is it good enough? Will my agent like it? Will my publishers like it?

I've published 23 books now and it never gets any easier. The doubts are still very much there for every single book or proposal.

I worked hard on the proposal, on getting every detail right - the series title (it's a new series for girls of 9+), the title of each book, the girls' names (there are 4 main characters), the plots for each of the first 3 books, the setting; especially the setting. I started reading widely on the subjects covered in the plots and added details to my proposal.

I wrote some of the first book, then rewrote it many times until I was happy with it. Only then did I send it to my agent. She read it and gave some suggestions. I took those on board and rewrote the whole proposal again. Finally it was ready to be sent to my editors and so began the waiting game.

What happens next? My editors - if they like it - take it to an acquisitions meeting where the sales and marketing team get their say. If they all like it, and they think it will sell, then you have a book contract.

amy5
amy5

I visited my publishers, Walker Books in London to hear the news and I waited anxiously for their verdict. I didn't have to wait long. As soon as I walked into the reception area (where some of my other Ask Amy Green books were twinkling at me from the book shelves), one of my editors said 'Everyone loved your proposal'. I was so relieved! I thought my proposal was good, my agent thought it was marvellous but you never can tell . . .

But nerves are good. In fact they are important to writers. It's what keeps us on our toes, makes us try our very hardest to produce something excellent. Nerves are like the adrenaline before a race, keeping us alive.

As writers we wear our hearts on our sleeves, outside our bodies. We are largely a highly emotional bunch and like actors, we crave an audience for our work - we need readers. We want people to say 'We love your books'.

But we also need to have confidence in what we are doing. So once we get that initial 'You're on the right track' nod, we need to take that affirmation on board and then get back to work. We need to put all those fears and doubts aside and write as if nothing else mattered.

Because if we let our writing worries consume us, we clip our own wings.

So once you get that initial nod - from your editor, or if you are not yet published, from a trusted friend - put all your worries behind you and fly. The only way to live a writing life is in the air and not stumbling along the ground.

memory box frt 5
memory box frt 5

I'm all set to take my own advice. After proof reading The Memory Box, my next book for adults which will be out in early 2013, I'll be writing the first book in the new series. The series is called The Wishing Girls. More about that soon.

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

How to Write a Bestseller – The Secret Ingredient

Last weekend I spoke at the Waterford Writers’ Festival. The subject of the panel discussion was How to Write a Bestseller. The chair of the session, the very able Vanessa O’Loughlin from www.writing.ie asked us to consider the key elements of fiction writing and what makes a bestselling novel: character, dialogue, plot, making your book stand out. Also on the panel were fellow popular fiction writers Monica McInerney, Sinead Moriarty and Niamh Greene. It got me thinking about the nature of the ‘bestseller’. A ‘bestseller’ is simply a book that sells a lot of copies, a book that has thousands of happy readers, all actively recommending it to their friends and family, and on Facebook and Twitter (which I think is the way most bestsellers are created – by word of mouth).

So I thought I’d jot down some of the things that came up during the panel discussion in case they are useful. And at the very end I’ll let you in on the secret – how to write a bestseller – as yes, there is a secret!

First of all: Character

We all agreed that creating big, interesting, real, lovable yet flawed characters is the key to writing good popular fiction. Monica McInerney said she creates her characters before plot; for Sinead Moriarty it’s the other way around. But when it comes to characters, you have to think BIG. (I covered this very topic during the 8 Week Write a Book course on this blog).

Monica writes warm, funny family dramas; Sinead’s books tend to have an issue at the centre – breast cancer, anorexia, breakdown of a family unit – and she takes her research very seriously indeed.

Research

Sinead said something very interesting – she said that you can write about anything as long as you do your research, which she finds very freeing. You keep reading until you know your subject backwards, she said. One of her books, Pieces of My Heart (about an anorexic teenager and her family’s struggle to help her get well again) took a lot of research and after the first draft she had to go back and unpick the chapters that were too research heavy and rewrite them. She was very honest and open about this, which I think was helpful for people to hear. Rewriting is a topic that came up a lot. More about that in a second.

But next: Dialogue

Niamh Greene talked about dialogue and how important it is to get it right. She reads out her dialogue and works on it until it’s perfect. I talked about how each character has to have their own way of speaking in a book, their own voice. If you are unsure about how to approach dialogue, read some of the masters - Roddy Doyle, Marian Keyes, Anne Tyler.

Plot

I explained how important it is to select a subject/setting that you really, really want to write about. It has to be something that fascinates you and that you’re dying to tell your readers about - eg zoo keeping (my latest novel, The Shoestring Club has a zoo keeper in it), the life of a young ballerina (Ask Amy Green: Dancing Daze – now that research – in Budapest – was such fun!).

I always say there are two types of people, the planners and the seat of the pant-ers. Planners know where their passport is weeks before travelling, seat of the pant-ers don’t. If you’re a planner, you may need to plan your book. I’m a planner and I make detailed plot notes for every scene of every book. Now, often these change once I start writing, but I need the plot notes to start a book in the first place – it’s like my safely net in case I get stuck along the way. A book takes a long time to write, and you need all the help you can get!

Monica is not a planner, her books evolve as she writes; Sinead is a planner. We are all different writers, just as we are all different people.

Theme

I talked about theme, about how your book has to say something. At the heart of The Shoestring Club is a family secret and the book is about how a buried secret can have devastating consequences.

Julia, the main character, blames herself for her mother’s death – this is at the heart of every mistake she makes in life. And until she comes to terms with this, she will never live a full life.

What’s your book about? Can you tell me in a few lines? If not, you need to work on your book’s theme. And this doesn’t always come easy. Sometimes the theme won’t be clear to you until after your first or second draft.

Rewriting

The difference between a published novel and an unpublished novel - the rewrites. Simple as that. Your first draft is just a starting point. Keep working on it until it's a perfect as you can make it. Again, see my Write a Book Course for more on this.

Motivation

You have to want to write more than anything in the world. If you don’t have this overwhelming drive and passion, there’s no point in writing. Marilyn Munroe once said:

‘I wasn’t the prettiest, I wasn’t the most talented, I simply wanted it more than anyone else.’

Do you want to get published more than anyone else?

Because that’s the secret. Motivation, tenacity, drive. And the willingness to be honest, to cut a vein and bleed all over the page; to write about things that scare you, upset you, terrify you. You have to dig deep. It has to hurt. If it doesn’t, there’s no point writing. Unless you have to write, unless you have a burning need to tell people about something that means everything to you, don’t bother.

I’ll leave you with these final words from Pablo Neruda:

‘For me writing is like breathing. I could not live without breathing and I could not live without writing.’

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

Write That Book - Week 7 - Proposals and Agents

shoestring trade pbk cover to use
shoestring trade pbk cover to use

Welcome to week seven of Write That Book. If you’ve just stumbled upon this blog, weeks one to six, covering getting started, characters, plot and editing may also be of use to you. Once you’ve finished your manuscript and have rewritten it many, many times and copy-edited it meticulously, you will need to find an agent or a publisher. I’ll deal with why you need an agent below (and in some cases you don’t), but first, titles.

Book Titles

Book titles are very important. They say a lot about a book. Some writers find titles easy, for others it’s like pulling teeth. And it can differ with every book. In the world of popular fiction/romantic comedy, I’ve always liked Katie Fforde’s titles: Thyme Out, Practically Perfect, Highland Fling. Maeve Binchy’s titles are also excellent – simple and catchy - Tara Road, Nights of Rain and Stars, Circle of Friends.

On the children’s side, I’ve always loved the quirky Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret as a title. It shouldn't work, but it does. How to Train Your Dragon, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Under the Hawthorne Tree, Ballet Shoes, Skulduggery Pleasant, Artemis Fowl – all fantastic, memorable titles. It’s hard to define what makes a good title. It must be simple and catchy, but it must also say something about the book.

So spend time getting your title right.

Writing a Proposal for an Agent

So you’ve finished your book, made it as perfect as you can (after many, many edits and rewrites) and you’re finally ready for the journey to publication. Some publishers will accept unsolicited manuscripts, but many of the larger publishers only accept submissions from agents. If your book is a local history of Dublin, you can send it directly to an Irish publisher, and we’ll talk more about this, along with self-publishing, next week. If your book is a novel, and you’d like to see it published in the UK, all over Europe and the US, as well as in Ireland, you will need an agent.

Preparing your manuscript

Presentation is so important. Your manuscript must look professional. Make sure the pages are freshly printed out and look pristine. Make sure your covering letter is clear and polite. Include any personal details that you think are relevant and interesting - your experience living in an exotic country where the book is set from for example, working in the circus in your teens, your years as a ballerina/ballet teacher - but keep it brief and succinct.

Make sure your manuscript is neatly printed on plain white A4 paper, using double spaces and easy to read (eg Times New Roman) 12 point type; and make sure every page is numbered. Put your name, address and telephone number clearly on the title page, as well as the title of the book, and place a large elastic band around the pages. Don’t staple the pages together and don’t bind your manuscript - agents like to be able to read manuscripts on the train and in bed.

Some agents prefer a synopsis and a few sample chapters first, check with each agent for details before sending anything to them. Place the whole lot in a jiffy bag, and cross your fingers.

These days, some agents read most of their submissions on their Kindle or iPad, make sure to ring or email and ask how they like submissions before you send anything off. Be warned – sometimes you will ring an agent’s office and they will answer the phone themselves. And they may ask you to tell them about your book right then and there. Be prepared! This happened to me once and I was caught completely on the hop. I didn’t have my notes in front of me and I was hideously tongue tied. (In my case it didn’t actually matter – but it could have!)

This is what you will need to send an agent:

A brief, polite and informative covering letter A brief biog – especially anything exciting or book related. Are you a librarian, bookseller, teacher, bee keeper, lion tamer? A brief blurb (like you’d find on the back of a book – sell your book to the agent in 3 or 4 lines) A synopsis of the whole novel – 2 to 3 pages Character biographies of your main characters – to show you know who they are (I’m not sure if this is standard, but I always do it) The first few chapters depending on their length – about 30 to 50 pages – ask how many chapters/pages the agent would like to see.

Most agents ask for the first few chapters; if they like them, they will request the entire manuscript. So you’d better make those first few chapters REALLY, REALLY GOOD. Never say in your letter ‘These aren’t the strongest chapters, it does get much better later on’. Never send an extract from the middle of the book.

And finally all agents want career writers, people who want to write lots of books, not just one book. So it’s a good idea to tell them what other book ideas you have, or what other books you have also written.

They want writers they feel they can work with, who are professional, hard working and in control of their work. They want writers who know what they are doing and have confidence in their own work, writers who aren’t afraid of rewrites, who take the business of writing seriously. Is that you?

Why Do I Need an Agent?

People often me ask this and I tell them the following:

The Irish publishing world is quite small and very few writers could survive writing only for the home market. This is where agents come in – to find international publishers for Irish writers, and to sell foreign rights.

There are many reasons why agents are useful: 1/ An agent can advise you on your manuscript and on how to make it more attractive to a publisher. Some of them, like my wonderful agents (I have two agents – in the same agency – one for my children’s books, another for my books for grown-ups) will act as unofficial ‘editors’ to their clients, or can, at the very least, suggest changes or improvements. Many are in fact ex-editors and are highly qualified for this work. 2/ An agent can find the right publisher for your work. Good agents will know what kind of areas particular publishers are looking to publish in at the moment. And they can sell your UK, US and other foreign rights. 3/ Agents deal with the difficult and technical area of contracts. They are also experts in digital rights and ebooks, which is an area that is becoming more and more important for writers. 4/ Money – they can chase up your royalties and talk to your publishers about outstanding monies owed to you. 5/ Good agents make you want to up your game – they make you want to write better books. Which is always a good thing! Ditto good editors – more on that next week.

Agents can be found in the Writers and Artists’ Yearbook. It can take a while for them to get back to you (up to 3 months). It used to be good practice to approach them one at a time, but these days it is perfectly acceptable to approach several at the same time. Of course, if you get an agent, do let other agents you have sent submissions to know, it’s only good manners and you don’t want to waste their time.

There are only a few literary agents in Ireland, the main ones being Jonathan Williams, Faith O’Grady and Marianne Gunn O’Connor (Details below or in the Writers and Artists’ Yearbook as above – or google them). Many Irish authors are with UK agents.

Contact the chosen agent and find out what they would like to see – for some it’s a few chapters, for others it’s the whole manuscript, plus news cuttings, reviews, biog, photo - anything relevant. Even the top agencies are always looking for new talent so don’t be put off by the fact that they represent Cecelia Ahern, JK Rowling or Marian Keyes.

See below for a list of recommended children’s agents and popular fiction agents. And finally I will leave you with some tips from the experienced Irish agent, Faith O’Grady:

Top Tips from Faith O’Grady, Literary Agent at the Lisa Richards Agency

1. Do some research on the literary agency before submitting your work to find out if they handle your particular genre. It is worth making a brief phone call or looking up the agency website to find out what their requirements for submission are. Agencies have different submission policies so it is worth finding out what they are looking for.

2. Write a cover letter which is clear and concise, giving a brief description of your book and of yourself. Don't exaggerate or oversell yourself or the book as this is quite off-putting.

3. Include an sae if you would like your work returned. And don't expect an immediate response as most agencies are inundated with unsolicited manuscripts.

And next week - the final week - we will deal with publishers and self publishing . . .

Who Represents Who?The Agents Who Represent the Most Successful Irish Children’s Writers (with Contact Details)

 Remember to check each agent’s website for submission guidelines before you send anything out. Or ring the agency for details – I know it’s daunting but they are always happy to advise you on how (or if) to submit. Be warned – you may get the agent herself/himself on the phone. Be prepared!

Eoin Colfer is represented by Sophie Hicks.

sophie@edvictor.com 0044 (0) 2073044100

Derek Landy is represented by Michelle Kass (Who also represents the wonderful Patrick Ness)

office@michellekass.co.uk 0044 (0) 207 74391624

Darren Shan is represented by Christopher Little

Christopher Little Literary Agency 10 Eel Brook Studios 125 Moore Park Road London SW6 4PS

Tel: +44 (0) 207 736 4455 Fax: +44 (0) 207 736 4490

For general enquiries please email: info@christopherlittle.net

Sarah Webb (moi!) is represented by Philippa Milnes Smith at LAW

Contact: All submissions should be sent, in hard copy, by post to: LAW, 14 Vernon Street, London, W14 0RJ www.lawagency.co.uk

Cathy Cassidy is represented by Darley Anderson (Spends a lot of time in Ireland and a lovely woman so I’ve included her!)

Contact: Darley Anderson Literary, TV and Film Agency Estelle House 11 Eustace Road London SW6 1JB Tel: 00 44 (0)20 7385 6652 Fax:00 44 (0)20 7386 5571 Email: enquiries@darleyanderson.com

Judi Curtin and Marita Conlon McKenna are represented by Caroline Sheldon

Contact via: www.carolinesheldon.co.uk 71 Hillgate Place, London W8 7SS

 Other Recommended Children’s Agents:

Julia Churchill Greenhouse Literary Agency

If you want to make a submission, we take e-queries only, please. To Julia at submissions@greenhouseliterary.com.  Check our submission guidelines on this site for full information before querying.  Please note, we no longer accept snail-mail queries or email attachments. We are sorry that we cannot take (or return) phone queries regarding submissions. 

Eve White, Eve White Literary Agency (represents Andy ‘Mr Gum’ Stanton) eve@evewhite.co.uk 00 44 (0) 207 6301155

Veronique Baxter at David Higham Contact: David Higham Associates 5–8 Lower John Street Golden Square London W1F 9HA Switchboard: 00 44 (0)20 7434 5900 Fax: 044 (0)20 7437 1072 E-mail: dha@davidhigham.co.uk

Who Represents Who?Irish Popular Fiction Writers and Their Agents with Contact Details

 Remember to check each agent’s website before you send anything out for submission guidelines.

Maeve Binchy is represented by Christine Green

Contact: 0044 (0) 20 7401 8844          info@christinegreen.co.uk Christine Green Authors' Agent 6 Whitehorse Mews Westminster Bridge Road London SE1 7QD

Marian Keyes, Cathy Kelly and Monica McInerney are all represented by Jonathan Lloyd (also CEO of Curtis Brown)

Contact: 0044 (0)20 7393 4418 lucia@curtisbrown.co.ukwww.curtisbrown.co.uk

Sheila O’Flanagan is represented by Carole Blake

Contact: Blake Friedmann Literary, Film & TV Agency 122 Arlington Road London NW1 7HP   Telephone: 00 44 (0)20 7284 0408 Fax: 00 44 (0) 20 7284 0442 email: info@blakefriedmann.co.uk

Cecelia Ahern is represented by Marianne Gunn O’Connor Marianne also represents Claudia Carroll, Anita Notaro and Sinead Moriarty

Contact: Marianne Gunn O'Connor Literary Agency Morrison Chambers, Suite 17 32 Nassau Street, Dublin 2 mgoclitagency@eircom.net

Melissa Hill is represented by Sheila Crowley Sheila also represents Colette Caddle, Emma Hannigan and Sarah Harte

Contact: 00 44 (0)20 7393 4492 crowleyoffice@curtisbrown.co.uk

Sarah Webb is represented by Peta Nightingale at LAW (LAW also represent Sophie Kinsella – Irish name, but not actually Irish!)

Contact: All submissions should be sent, in hard copy, by post to: LAW, 14 Vernon Street, London, W14 0RJ www.lawagency.co.uk

Clare Dowling is represented by Darley Anderson

Contact: Darley Anderson Literary, TV and Film Agency Estelle House 11 Eustace Road London SW6 1JB Tel: 00 44 (0)20 7385 6652 Fax:00 44 (0)20 7386 5571 Email: enquiries@darleyanderson.com

Marita Conlon McKenna is represented by Caroline Sheldon

Contact via: www.carolinesheldon.co.uk 71 Hillgate Place, London W8 7SS

Patricia Scanlan is represented by Lutyens &  Rubenstein Literary Agency

Contact via: www.lutyensrubinstein.co.uk 21 Kensington Park Road, London W11 2EU

Other Recommended Popular Fiction Agents:

Madeleine Buston at Darley Anderson

Contact: Darley Anderson Literary, TV and Film Agency Estelle House 11 Eustace Road London SW6 1JB Tel: 0 44 (0)20 7385 6652 Fax: 0 44 (0)20 7386 5571 Email: enquiries@darleyanderson.com

Lizzie Kremer at David Higham Contact: David Higham Associates 5–8 Lower John Street Golden Square London W1F 9HA Switchboard: 00 44 (0)20 7434 5900 Fax: 044 (0)20 7437 1072 E-mail: dha@davidhigham.co.uk

Rewrites, Don't You Just Love Them?

I’m on day three now of the first rewrite of The Shoestring Proposal (adult novel for 2012 – working title), and it was all going along nicely until I hit a major plot hiccup and had to start all over again. I’m trying to focus on the overall structure of the story this time but it’s very tempting to tweak at the dialogue and the sentences too. I’ve gone over the first six chapters about five times now and it’s time to let go and move on to the next section of the book. I’ll come back to the first section again later and then start the whole process all over again!

But rewriting is an interesting process. To give you some idea of what I’m up to, below is a short section of a scene from near the opening of the book, with notes (in italics) as to why I’ve added or changed things. Read it if it interests you. I’ve given you both the original version and the new version.

But first - Other things I’m working on during the rewrite – some of these are minor, some are big:

Changing the name of a secondary character from Rebecca to Jessica – I had a Rachel and a Rebecca – mother and daughter, and I was getting confused as to who was who – so I’m sure a tired reader might confuse them also.

Making my main characters – Jules and Pandora – stand out more. Adding lots of detail – clothes, mannerisms, giving them each a very particular way of speaking. A lot of this was in the first draft, but it wasn’t consistent enough. It needs to be perfect.

Making sure I’ve got all the continuity correct – Pandora was 14 when her mum died, Jules, nine; birthdays; childhoods. Is this all consistent throughout the book?

Upping the drama – making the reader FEEL is vitally important in popular fiction. Have I made the most of each and every scene?

Fact checking – lots of fact checking. I need to talk to a medic for a start – luckily I have a friend who’s a surgeon who will be able to help me. All the facts need to be 100% accurate.

Adding a rabbit (don’t ask).

Making Pandora’s meltdown BIGGER.

Putting in two new scenes – taking out other scenes, ones I know are not working.

And that’s just for starters – once my agent and my editor get their hands on it, the work really begins! Fun, fun, fun. But all part of every writer’s life.

At the end of the day, the more work you put into a book, the more love and passion and enthusiasm your pour into the pages, the better it will be.

The Shoestring Proposal (First Draft) Old version: (Bits in talics are my notes)

I knew I’d get a mixed reaction when I first suggested the trip to Paris.

(I deleted this line as I want the Paris bit to come as a surprise to the reader.) I’m standing behind the till at Shoestring, the second hand designer shop I run, along with my sister, Jules, and Bird, our spritely eighty-four-year-old granny. It’s a quiet day and Jules has wandered over for a chat.

(all a bit bla – needed more of a sense of who Jules and Pandora actually are – and I haven’t actually given Pandora a name - I want the reader to know her name early on as she’s the narrator)

  ‘Have you thought any more about your birthday present?’ she says without preamble, leaning over and plonking her elbows down on the desk. ‘How about hand-made leather gloves? There’s little place in town that makes them to measure and you can choose the leather and the lining. I know you like practical presents and it’s something a bit different. I’m not giving you a voucher again, not for your thirtieth.’ It’s now or never, I decide. ‘I’d much prefer a weekend away, Jules,’ I say, trying to keep my voice light. ‘How about Paris?’ She twists around and stares at me. ‘Paris? Are you sure?’ She has every right to be surprised. I’d spent three months studying at the Paris Institute of Fashion and Design in Montmartre in my early twenties and I’d come home with a lot more than notebooks jammed with dress ideas, and conversational French.  

OK problem here – Paris is a big deal – Pandora left Paris in a hurry and has never been back – so wanting to go there for her 30th is a HUGE deal – which isn’t clear her – and also would stop the conversation – it wouldn’t just be – Paris . . . Jules in shock . . . then back to the previous conversation – wrong, wrong, wrong! I nod. ‘I’d prefer to be out of the country when I turn thirty. That way I can pretend it isn’t really happening. Thirty’s so ancient. I can feel the crow’s feet coming on already.’ My hands flutter to the outer edges of her eyes and I start rotating the skin gently under my finger tips.

New version: (Second draft - and still a long way to go yet!)

I’m sitting behind the till at Shoestring, the second hand designer clothes shop I run, peering at the computer screen when my sister, Jules wanders in the front door pushing her road bike in front of her with one hand. She’s only ten minutes late which isn’t bad for her.

My mind’s all over the place this morning; I’m supposed to be updating our website before the shop floor starts to get too busy – adding new stock and taking down anything we’ve sold - but I’m finding it desperately hard to concentrate, so I’m glad for the distraction. ‘Hey, Pandora, have you thought any more about your birthday present?’ she says without preamble, propping her bike against the desk, swinging her bag off her shoulder and dumping it the floor, and then leaning over and plonking her elbows down on the desk, making the bracelets on her wrist jangle down her arm. She’s wearing a very odd-looking outfit today – nothing new for Jules – red knitted leggings, yellow cut-off denim shorts and a purple bat-winged top.

‘I had an idea on the way over,’ she continues, oblivious to either my stares at her get up or the fact that she’s late for work. ‘How about hand-made leather gloves? There’s little place in town that makes them to measure and you can choose the leather and the lining. I know you like practical presents and it’s something a bit different. I’m not giving you a voucher again, not for your thirtieth.’ I’ve been mulling over how to work my birthday into a conversation for a good week and now that Jules has given me the opening, I may as well get it out there. Trying to sound as breezy as possible I say ‘I’d much prefer a weekend away than a present, Jules. A city break maybe. I’d like to be out of the country when I turn thirty. That way I can pretend it isn’t really happening. Thirty’s so bloody ancient. I can feel the crow’s feet coming on already.’ I start to rotate the skin at the corner of my eyes gently under my finger tips. ‘You have to massage your face several times a day, apparently,’ I add, trying to make my ageing-concern believable. ‘And do special exercises.’

It still isn’t perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot better than it was. Several more rewrites and I might actually be brave enough to show it to my agent. Maybe . . .

Right, back to work.

Yours in writing, Sarah XXX

Rewriting and Taking a Leap of Faith

I’m just back from holidays and about to start working on the first rewrite of The Shoestring Proposal (working title – sequel to The Shoestring Club which will be published in February 2012 - so for 2013, gulp!). After this rewrite it will go to my lovely agent, Peta for her notes. And once we are both happy with it, the rewritten draft will wing its way to my editor in Pan Macmillan. So step one: I’ve printed out the manuscript, made some early notes and this morning I’ll start reading through the pages and make even more notes. It's slow going, but it works for me.

I know it needs a lot of attention, I know one of the characters in particular isn’t quite right yet and I’m not sure about one of the story strands. I also need to do some fact checking. Rewriting is a vital part of the writing process and demands a clear head and a brave heart.

Yesterday I read JoJo Moyes’s blog (with thanks to Melissa Hill for the heads up on Twitter). This is what she said about rewriting one of her books:

So, four days ago I took the decision to cut 70,000 words out of my finished book, and rewrite them. Yup, I’ll say that again. Seventy thousand words. Or, to put it another way, a shortish novel. I didn’t do it lightly; even now, a few days on, it feels a bit like an amputation. The most I have ever cut at one time is around 5,000 words (a chapter). When I talked about it to friends this weekend I found myself saying the words with a slightly-too-giddy laugh “I’ve just deleted 70,000 words of my latest! I know! hahaha!” and using the kind of voice that suggests an imminent lurch towards a gin bottle. But I had handed the manuscript over to my agent in June, and a month’s distance – and a barely perceptible edge to her words which told me that while she loved it, she didn’t love it as much as the last two – meant that something had to give. In today’s unforgiving publishing landscape, you can’t afford to put out a book that you – or your agent – doesn’t believe is not just good, but the best darn thing you have ever written. And here is the galling thing. I think I knew. The book – The Girl You Left Behind – is a dual timeframe epic about love, betrayal and nazi-looted art. Half of it is set in German-occupied France in 1916 – a subject I thought I would struggle with. But no, that part of the book flew; it was the modern plot-line that refused to take off.

And from 20,000 words on, a little voice at the back of my head kept whispering that it wasn’t quite working. I tinkered. I rewrote. I told myself that it was a huge subject, a complex plot. I reassured myself that I had often felt ambivalent about finished work. As writer Debi Alper tweeted me afterwards: “It’s hard to draw the line between clever gut and inner critic.” By the time I handed it over, I knew I had done a good job. But that little voice was still there, muffled but insistent. And then I sat down and checked the proofs of my finished book, Me Before You, which will be published in January, and I made a horrible realisation. The Girl You Left Behind was just not as good. So here I am, 2000 words in to a 70000 word rewrite. I have no idea how I will get it done in time. I suspect a return to the 6am writing stints will follow (bleurgh). It will be stressful and, as a freelance, it will cost me money. The good news is this (and believe me, I need some good news): even 2000 words in, the new plot feels right. (I’m going to assume that’s my clever gut talking. And not an ulcer.) But it has taught me a valuable lesson. Firstly, that buying yourself a month away from your work in progress is a really useful thing. And, secondly, that if a little nagging voice is repeatedly telling you something is wrong, then, guess what? It probably is. And the sooner you can accept that, take a step back and re-work it, the less likely you are to be working out how to rewrite an entire novel during your summer holidays.

70,000 words! Brave, brave woman. But sometimes courage is what it takes; courage and conviction and, above all, the will to work hard and to stick with it until you get every scene, every word right. As I’ve said time and time again, writing is all about rewriting. It’s part of the craft of writing; it’s part of every writer’s life. And it’s also what separates the published from the unpublished.

So here I am – at stage one. I’ll let you know how I get on and what changes and decisions I make along the way as it may be useful to you. Documenting it will certainly be useful to me and help to keep me motivated. And as my head is still drowsy from my holidays, I need to focus. Focus, Sarah. Back to the book! (And there is the small matter of Amy Green 5 also – which I’ll be starting next week – ah yes, the joy of juggling!)

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX