The Writing Coach

Lexicon dlr Writer in Residence Events + Workshops

Writer in Residence: Events, Book Clubs and Writing Clubs

All events and clubs are in the Lexicon Library, Dun Laoghaire

I'm delighted to be hosting a wide range of events, clubs and workshops for children, teens and adults during my residency. Here are the events from now until the end of the year.

I hope to see you at the dlr Lexicon very soon!

Yours in writing,

sarah reading to a child
sarah reading to a child

Sarah XXX

Events

13th September (school day)

Roald Dahl Day for Schools – Celebrating 100 Years of a Master Storyteller

Events and workshops inspired by the work of Roald Dahl with Oisin McGann, Alan Nolan, Grainne Clear and Enda Reilly.

Booking: dlrlexiconlib@dlrcoco.ie

16th September (evening)

Print
Print

CULTURE NIGHT – SMASHING STORIES AND DASHING DOODLES

5pm to 7pm Story and art fun for all the family with Sarah Webb and Alan Nolan – no booking required.

Friday 16th September (school day)

Schools Events – Canada Day with Children’s Books Ireland

School events with award winning Canadian writers and illustrators, JonArno Lawson, Sydney Smith and Katherena Vernette. Find out how a book is made with our international guests.

Booking: dlrlexiconlib@dlrcoco.ie

Children’s Book Club

Age 9+

Max number: 15

1st Wed of every month: 7th Sept, 5th Oct, 9th Nov, 7th Dec

3.15pm to 4.30pm – Level 3 Meeting Room

BOOKING: dlrlexiconlib@dlrcoco.ie

Do you love reading? Would you like to chat about stories and characters with fellow young book lovers?  Whether you’re a Harry Potter fan, or eat up Judi Curtin or David Walliams books, this is the club for you! For our first meeting we’ll be talking about our favourite Roald Dahl book, in honour of his centenary on 13th September.

Children’sWriting Club

Age 9+

Max number: 15

Thursday 15th Sept, 29th Sept, 13th Oct, 10th Nov, 24th Nov, 8th Dec (last of the year)

3.15pm to 4.30pm

3.15pm to 4.30pm – Level 3 Meeting Room

BOOKING: dlrlexiconlib@dlrcoco.ie

Do you love writing stories and poems? Would you like to find out more about creating fantastic characters and gripping plots? Then this is the club for you!

Teen Creatives

Age 12+ (1st year students upwards)

Max – number 15

10am to 12pm       

Venue: Lexicon Lab on Level 3

17th Sept, 1st Oct, 22nd Oct, 12th Nov, 26th Nov, 10th Dec (last of the year)

BOOKING: dlrlexiconlib@dlrcoco.ie

 ‘To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.’ Joseph Chilton Pearce

Teen Creatives is for all teenagers who love to write and draw, and would like to learn how to create video blogs and edit movie clips. We will be talking about how stories work, writing, drawing, cartooning, making short movies and vlogs, and exploring the practical, behind the scenes side of the arts world, from hanging an art exhibition to curating a book festival.

Artists, writers and arts curators will be invited to talk to the group about their work, such as writer and cartoonist, Alan Nolan and award winning writer, Sheena Wilkinson.

Drop in Writing Clinic for Children and Teenagers 

Age: 8 to 18 years

Wednesday 28th Sept, 26th Oct, 30th Nov

3pm to 4pm

Writer in Residence Room, Level 5

Are you a young writer?Would you like our writer in residence, Sarah Webb to read your work and offer advice? Drop in to her writing clinic. No need to book.

Please bring a copy of your work for Sarah to read. Children under 12 must be accompanied by an adult.

Drop in Writing Clinic for Adults

Writer in Residence Room, Level 5

Wednesday 28th Sept, 26th Oct, 30th Nov

4pm to 5pm

Are you an adult who is writing for children or teenagers? Would you like some help and advice? Our writer in residence, Sarah Webb is hosting writing clinics for emerging children’s writers. No need to book.

Sarah is happy to read short extracts from manuscripts during the clinic. Please bring a print out of your work.

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.

Top 3 Writing Tips - Martina Devlin + Kate Beaufoy

Martina Devlin and Kate Beaufoy will be talking about writing and their new books at What Lies Beneath Readers' Day on Saturday 7th November in the new Lexicon Library in Dun Laoghaire. To mark the occasion, I asked them for their top three writing tips.

Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin
Martina Devlin

1/ Write early in the day, as soon as you rise. It doesn't have to be a 6am writing spurt, but it does have to be first thing by your body clock. 3/ Take care with your characters, even minor ones, if you want readers to go on a journey with them. They need not all be likeable. But their actions should have an internal logic, or make sense to readers. 3/ Leave a note to yourself where you meant to take the story next at the end of a writing session. It's amazing how much we forget, even in the space of a day.

Kate Beaufoy

1/ Try converting chunks of your text into a different font. That way you can read it with new, more objective eyes, and you’ll spot things you may not have noticed otherwise.

2/ Don’t advertise the fact that you’re writing a novel; you'll regret it every time someone asks you how it’s going.

3/ Find one or two readers whom you can trust to be straight with you in the nicest possible way. NEVER petition Facebook friends to read your work.

-

Hear more from Kate and Martina about their books and how they write at What Lies Beneath Reader and Writers Day - Sat 7th November. Lexicon Library, Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin  

Book here.

 Or ring 01 231 2929 12pm to 5pm

Kate Beaufoy
Kate Beaufoy

What Lies Beneath

If you’re passionate about books and love talking to other book lovers, this is the day for you. Find out how bestselling UK author, Freya North and Irish bestseller, Patricia Scanlan got their first breaks; hear how Kate Beaufoy and Kate Kerrigan researched their latest historic novels; listen to Sinead Moriarty and Claudia Carroll talk about their favourite books; discover the inspiration behind Sinead Crowley, Martina Devlin and Marita Conlon McKenna’s new novels; and hear Sinead Gleeson talk about the wealth of short story talent in Ireland, past and present, with Lia Mills and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne. A stimulating and thought-provoking day for all readers and writers.

Book here. 

Patricia Scanlan
Patricia Scanlan

Picture Books: To Rhyme or Not to Rhyme?

Some of My Picture Book Collection
Some of My Picture Book Collection

I was doing some intense thinking about picture books last night. My writing class asked me why I'm not keen on rhyming picture books and I didn't have a coherent answer for them. But I do now!

When I got home I read dozens of rhyming and non rhyming pictures books. Every month I am sent review copies of all the new titles (and proofs or early reading copies) by the various Irish and UK publishers, and I read ALL the picture books and as many of the novels as I can. So I get a great overview of what's going on in the world of children's books. (Aside - when I was the children's book buyer at Waterstone's and then Eason's I saw the covers and titles of up to 8k children's books a year. Booksellers are a font of knowledge when it comes to children's books, trends, titles, covers etc. I'm proud to say I still work with booksellers, as a consultant with Dubray Books.)

So what conclusion did I come to after my late night read? A large number of rhyming picture books are all about concept (love, ABC, 123, colour) and it's hard to get emotion and conflict into even the best of them.Yes, yes I know Julia Donaldson manages to pack her books with emotion (and others do too - Madeline, Millions of Cats, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes etc) but she is one in a million. Non-rhyming picture books are all about story, character and emotion.

Spread from Owl Babies
Spread from Owl Babies
monster mamma
monster mamma

I like books that squeeze my heart, books full of emotion and power. Owl Babies, Where the Wild Things Are, Lost and Found, The Heart and the Bottle, Monster Mama (see below for details).

I hate insipid, badly rhyming picture books about loving your mummy (who is also a teddy dressed in human clothing). Managing to make the last words on each line rhyme does not magically turn a writer into a poet. The whole line has to sing.

And for the record here are my all time top 10 favourite picture books (not the best books, or the ones that have won the most awards, the ones I love the most). Books I could not live without:

1/ Where the Wild Things Are - Maurice Sendak

Is there a better picture book?

2/ Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson

Love it - and it has my name in it!

3/ Lost and Found - Oliver Jeffers

Oliver Jeffers
Oliver Jeffers

Oliver is exceptional. One of the greatest picture book talents Ireland has ever produced.

4/ Busy Busy World - Richard Scarry

My childhood is embedded in this book.

5/ The Elephant and the Bad Baby by Elfrida Vipont, illustrated by Raymond Briggs

Loved it as a child, love it now.

6/ The Red Tree -  Shaun Tan

From The Red Tree
From The Red Tree

The illustrations make me shiver, they're so good. I also love Rules of Summer. All his work in fact.

7/ Monster Mama by Liz Rosenberg, illustrated by Stephen Gammell

Incredible book about a mother and her son, bullying and the power of love.

8/ Alfie Gets in First - Shirley Hughes

Best writer for toddlers ever. Her domestic scenes sing with love.

9/ Peter's Chair - Ezra Jack Keats

Exceptional picture book from 1967 about sibling rivalry. I was read it first when my sister was born and it's stayed with me all that time.

10/ Fighting it out for the last slot - I can't choose. There so many amazing picture book makers. Jon Klassen is my pick for today. I Want My Hat Back. But I also adore Dr Suess (who doesn't?), although may of his books are more illustrated books than picture books (maybe Richard Scarry's too?). A topic for another day. And for pure illustration, Lizbeth Zwerger all the way. Journey by Aaron Becker is pretty special too (wordless picture book). So many pretty books ...

A Spread from Journey
A Spread from Journey

Better get back to the writing! I'll leave you with this: award winning picture book maker, Marie Louise Fitzpatrick talking a lot of sense about picture books that rhyme:

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

She Said, He Said: Top 10 Tips for Writing Dialogue

I love writing dialogue and it’s only taken me fifteen years to nail it. My first novel was called Three Times a Lady and it was published in 2000. The dialogue is riddled with unnecessary dialogue tags and adverbs. She said lovingly, he said angrily, he demanded furiously, she retorted with a snort – it’s all in there! My first novels were definitely my ‘learner novels’ but I'm still I’m very proud of them.

These days my dialogue is much tighter and I’ve dropped the adverbs. I’m not alone. In an interview, Gabriel García Márquez once said: ‘Before ‘Chronicle of a Death Foretold there are many (adverbs). In ‘Chronicle’ there is one. After that, in ‘Love’ there are none.’

Why does dialogue matter? Here’s a short extract from Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King (an excellent book):

What’s the first thing editors look for when they begin reading a fiction submission? Several editors we know have answered that question the same way: ‘The first thing I do is find a scene with some dialogue. If the dialogue doesn’t work, the manuscript gets bounced. If it’s good, I start reading.’

Top 10 Tips for Writing Dialogue

1/ Dialogue must have a purpose. It must reveal character, move the plot along and build tension. And above all it must be interesting.

2/ Dialogue tags

She said/he said is almost invisible when read on the page. The eye skims over it. It does not skim over she replied, he retorted, she answered. Use other verbs sparingly in dialogue.

3/ Adverbs

Nor does the eye skim over:

She said sadly, while gazing at him adoringly.

He snarled angrily (back to this one in a second).

Use adverbs sparingly. Show how your character is saying something (or feeling) using your dialogue.

You may notice in older books that more adverbs are used - see the Alice in Wonderland extract below for eg.

4/ Back to the snarling. You cannot snarl a sentence. You cannot laugh or giggle a sentence.

NO - ‘You are the worst person I’ve ever met in the whole world,’ he snarled.

YES – ‘You’re a nasty piece of work,’ he said.

5/ Be consistent.

Don’t use:

Sarah said

Ms Webb said

And my amazing teacher said all on the same page.

6/ More than 3 or 4 people in a conversation can be difficult, one on one is much easier to follow for the reader (and easier to write).

7/ Ellipses (. . . ) mean the sentence is tailing off

When someone stops abruptly or is interrupted you use a dash –

8/ Name before noun (generally)

Sarah said, not said Sarah

In older books, you will notice more said Sarahs - but in modern books, it's mostly Sarah saids - if in doubt read the dialogue out loud to yourself and see which works best.

9/ Good dialogue is not realistic. It is a smarter, more dramatic version of real speech.

10/ Every one of your characters should speak differently.

Give them favourite words or phrases.

Are they articulate or shy?

Good dialogue shows the reader what your characters are like. Take this piece from Alice in Wonderland for example:

‘Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.

‘Exactly so,’ said Alice.

‘Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

‘I do,’ Alice hastily replied. ‘At least – at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing, you know.’

‘Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. ‘You might as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’

Here the reader learns that the March Hare and the Mad Hatter are pernickety when it comes to language and riddles, and Alice is thoughtful and polite.

Your characters come alive when they speak – work on your dialogue and your book will sing.

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

I’ve posted a dialogue exercise below for you to try.

Dialogue Exercise – correct the following:

(Adapted from one of my early books, Always the Bridesmaid)

The paranoia all started to kick in when my seventeen-year-old sister Suzi came home from Australia last December with Matt in tow, a boy she’d picked up while travelling in Australia. I thought things couldn't get any worse. I was wrong.

"Suzi, have you told Mum and Dad about Matt?" I demanded anxiously as we were loading my Golf with the bags in the airport car park. Matt had kindly offered to get rid of the baggage trolley.

"About what?" she asked quickly.

"About Matt," I replied. "Do they know he's come to live in Dublin?" She certainly hadn't told me and I'd got rather a shock when I'd seen the whole six-foot-something of him coming through the arrivals gate with his arm draped over my sister's shoulders.

"Not exactly," she giggled nervously. "But they'll love him and there's loads of room in the house and . . . "

"The house," I interrupted, trying to keep my voice level. "You and Matt are planning to live at home?"

"Well, we want to save for a house and I'm sure Mum and Dad won't mind,” Suzi responded.

"Right, a house," I muttered darkly.

"Do you think it'll be a problem?" Suzi asked anxiously, biting her lip. She was clearly nervous.

"No," I lied. "They're so excited about having you home, I'm sure they won't mind."

Suzi nudged me. Matt was smiling at her across the car's roof.

"Let's go!" Suzi exclaimed excitedly. “I can’t wait to introduce you to my parents, Matt. They’re going to love you,” she added lovingly.

I rolled my eyes. My darling sister was so naïve.

 Dialogue Answer (Suggested answer only – you may have a different version)

 Here I have cut out many of the adverbs and unnecessary dialogue tags, and added some tension towards the end.

The paranoia all started to kick in when my seventeen-year-old sister Suzi came home from Australia last December with Matt in tow, a boy she’d picked up while travelling in Australia. I thought things couldn't get any worse. I was wrong.

"Suzi, have you told Mum and Dad about Matt?" I asked my little sister as we were loading my Golf with the bags in the airport car park. Suzis’s new boyfriend, Matt had kindly offered to get rid of the baggage trolley.

"About what?"

"About Matt. Do they know he's come to live in Dublin?" She certainly hadn't told me and I'd got rather a shock when I'd seen the whole six-foot-something of him coming through the arrivals gate with his arm draped over my sister's shoulders.

"Not exactly.” She giggled nervously. "But they'll love him and there's loads of room in the house and-“

"The house?” I tried to keep my voice level. "You and Matt are planning to live at home?"

"Well, we want to save for a house and I'm sure Mum and Dad won't mind.”

"A house, right,” I muttered under my breath.

"Do you think it'll be a problem?" Suzi started biting at her lower lip.

I stared at her. Was she deranged? "You’re seventeen, Suzi. What do you think?”

Suzi wasn’t listening to me. Matt was smiling at her across the car's roof. She’d always been a sucker for a handsome face. She smiled back at him. The pair of them made my stomach turn. Bloody men! Oh, he’s smiling now all right, dear sister, but he hasn’t met Mum yet. Just you wait.

"Let's go!" Suzi said, “I can’t wait to introduce you to my parents, Matt. They’re going to love you.” She was still gazing at him adoringly.

I rolled my eyes. My darling sister was so naïve.

Haiku for Aliens - How to Write the Perfect Picture Book

Me Reading a Picture Book to a Child
Me Reading a Picture Book to a Child

I’ve been teaching a course on writing for children at the Irish Writers’ Centre. I love teaching and the class is one of the highlights of my week – two hours spent in the company of like minded people who all love children’s books as much as I do.

Last week we looked at picture books. As two of the class were sick I promised I’d give them some notes. I’m sharing them here in case they are useful to you also.

Writing picture books has been described as writing ‘haiku for aliens’. It’s definitely closer to writing poetry than anything else.

lost and found cover
lost and found cover

A lot of people think ‘Hey, I could write a picture book. Bang out a story about a teddy bear or a talking rabbit, get my mate to draw some pictures and bingo!’ But they are so wrong. Picture books are the hardest books of all to write. Every word matters. Every single line has to move the story along. Every page turn has to be a cliff hanger. Easy? No way, José!

 What is a picture book?

A picture book is an illustrated book for young children of age 18 months to about 5 or 6 (or 44 – I love picture books!). There are usually colour illustrations on every page and the story is told through the words and pictures.

 Why do they have to be brilliant?

Unlike novels for older children, picture books are read over and over again. Not only do you have to appeal to children, you also have to appeal to adults – parents, teachers, librarians. They are the ones reading Busy, Busy World or Where The Wild Things Are hundreds of times!

 How long should a picture book be?

Between 150 and 600 words. Ideally 400 to 500 words. Of course, if you’re the next Shaun Tan or Lauren Child, a publisher may make an exception.

Shaun Tan's Work
Shaun Tan's Work

 How many pages?

The average picture book has 32 pages – count them!

This is broken down into 24 pages of text and illustration or 12 double page spreads (sometimes slightly more if the end papers are used).

Again, if you are Oliver Jeffers, you may get away with a longer story, but if it’s your first book, it’s best to stick to the norm.

 Do I need to be an artist too?

lost and found
lost and found

No. Publishers have plenty of great illustrators on their books. They are looking for strong, original picture book texts.

 Where do I start?

I would suggest starting with your own childhood – as this is what will make your story different. For example:

Is there a favourite toy you had as a child? Did it ever get lost? (Dogger by Shirley Hughes is a great example of a lost toy story)

Was there a favourite place you loved to go as a child? Did you have a tree house? A Wendy house? A special dressing up box?

heart and bottle
heart and bottle

Don’t be afraid of using strong emotion in your text – Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers is about loneliness and friendship; The Heart and the Bottle is about love and loss.

What about universal stories? You could write about one of the following in a new or original way:

Overcoming the Monster – Little Red Riding Hood

Rags to Riches – Cinderella

Rebirth – The Very Hungry Caterpillar

The Quest – Lost and Found

Voyage and Return; Comedy; even Tragedy (Not Now, Bernard by David McKee).

You could rewrite an old fairy tale in a clever way or an Irish myth or legend.

Think warmth, humour, family, love and universal themes.

Good luck with your mini masterpieces!

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

 Some Recommended Picture Books

Oliver Jeffers – Lost and Found and The Heart and the Bottle

Lauren Child – Clarice Bean, That’s Me

where the wild things are
where the wild things are

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems

Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems

The Red Tree by Shaun Tan

If you’d like more information on writing picture books try:

writing with pictures
writing with pictures

How To Write a Children’s Picture Book by Andrea Shavick or Writing with Pictures by Uri Shelevitz

Dos and Don'ts for School and Library Events

book festival image 2013
book festival image 2013

On the first day of the Children's Book Festival in Ireland, I though I'd post this list - dos and don'ts for school and library visits: 1/ Do have a glass or bottle of water ready for the author.

2/ Do make sure they get fed at the relevant times – lunch is always good!

3/ If they are staying over, put them up in the hotel/guesthouse that you would choose to stay in – warm, quiet and clean. Remember some of your authors may need to write in the evenings – so do take this into consideration – a tiny room without a desk is a no no.

4/ Please don’t expect them to drive 50 or 60 miles between events – remember many authors are city slickers and more used to trains and buses.

5/ Think about the logistics and what’s best for the author – it might be a better use of their time to base them in the main library rather than slepping them all over the county.

6/ Send them directions to your school or library that are easy to follow and accurate – they do not need to go on a wild goose chase just before their event.

7/ Make sure the person at the desk/in reception knows an author is coming and greets them with a smile. Not a ‘Who? Sorry, don’t know anything about that. Wait here until I get someone.’ (More common than you might think.)

8/ Make an effort with posters – these can be ordered from the author’s publisher in advance – or at the very least type welcome and the author’s name on a sheet of paper and stick it to the front door. Make the author feel wanted – authors are sensitive souls, be kind.

9/ A follow up email/letter to say thanks for visiting is always nice.

10/ Do try to have the author’s books in stock – they will look for them on the shelves!

11/ If the author asks for 5th and 6th class girls, don’t give them 1st class boys – there is a reason for their request. And make sure the school understands this and doesn’t turn up with every child from JI to 6th class. It is a huge advantage – to both the writer and the children – if the children have read the author’s books in advance. At the very least they should know a/ who the author is and b/what books they write.

12/ Where possible, give the writer a large audience. Writers like talking to lots of children. Unless it’s a workshop – one class max for workshops. When in doubt, ask the writer – how many children do you like at your sessions?

Some of the brilliant things libraries and schools have done for me recently:

Made lovely welcome posters.

One school had a group of children who had read my books welcome me at reception and take me to the school hall where I was speaking. Usually it’s a teacher – so this was a nice touch.

In one school in Athy the mothers and teachers made cakes and came to welcome me, along with their children. This also happened in Griffeen Valley Educate Together School where the teachers and parents are very keen on reading.

Alexandra School library provided six copies of Amy Green, Teen Agony Queen for the girls to win on the day of the visit. Afterwards the students gave me a book token and a box of chocolates. Plus a follow up thank you card. Gold star to Alexandra School!

Write the Book That You Want to Write

magic book
magic book

I’ve just finished writing the first draft of my new book for children in The Wishing Girls series. It doesn’t have an official title yet, but I’m calling it Mollie after the main character. It’s a book that I really wanted to write, and luckily my agent and editor were keen on it too. But sadly this isn’t always the case in the publishing world. Sometimes you may be gently nudged (or blatantly asked) to write a book that is outside your comfort zone.

Depending on the market you may be asked to consider trying a vampire romance, issue based romance/popular fiction (think Jojo Moyes or Sinead Moriarty), ‘mummy porn’, a misery memoir . . . And even though your heart may not be in it, you might be tempted to give it a go. And if you do, and you can make it work, and even enjoy the experience then good on you. And let’s be honest here, maybe you really need the money and that can be a strong enough motivation in itself - many fine authors have written to pay the bills, nothing wrong with that.

But my honest opinion is this – life is too short to spend months/a year/years of your life on something that doesn’t make your heart sing. And by the time your book hits the shelves, the market may have changed.

Every book has its difficult scenes. No book is easy to write. But it’s hell of a lot easier if you actually adore the book you’re working on. If you love (or detest) the characters with a passion, if you think about the plot every waking moment of the day, if you can’t get the damn thing out of your mind, if you’re itching to get back to your desk every day to continue telling the story.

Write the book that YOU to write. If you put enough passion and enthusiasm into your writing, if you write the book your heart begs you to write, it will work. And it will get published. It’s as simple (or as difficult) as that.

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)

What Agents are Looking For + How to Write a Killer Pitch

Last week I gave a workshop on writing popular fiction and I asked a highly respected literary agent for some information. What are you looking for at the moment? I asked her. 'There's no definitive answer,' she said. 'But I am looking for something that stands out from the crowd, and the writing must be exceptional.' She explained that although her agency works with writers on their proposals/books, it is an expensive process if you can't be sure of a good outcome. So good writing is more important than ever. 'The writing has to be fresh, individual and clever,' she added. 'They must own their book and write with conviction.' 

She does not follow trends as they change so quickly. She also said 'What every writer must remember is that the agent has to sell it on to a editor, and the editor has to sell it on to sales and marketing. So if there isn't a 1 or 2 sentence pitch, it probably isn't going to work.'

Interesting, I thought. Very interesting.

I went away and thought long and hard about this. It's a difficult thing to do. I tried describing some of my own books in 1 or 2 lines:

Ask Amy Green: Dancing Daze (out in Sept) is about a talented young Irish dancer who moves to Budapest at fifteen to study ballet at the famous Budapest Ballet Academy. When her dreams turn sour, can Amy and Clover help save her ballet career?

Ask Amy Green (the series) is about a thirteen year old agony aunt, Amy Green, and her crazy seventeen year old aunt, Clover. Together they right all kinds of teenage wrongs, but when to comes to solving their own problems things aren't quite as simple.

When the Boys are Away (one of my books for adults) is about a young mum, Meg and what she gets up to when her partner, a professional sailor is away. The pitch is also in the title pretty much - it's one of my best titles, it says exactly what the book is about, which is really important. But that's a blog for another day.

Can you describe your book in 1 or 2 sentences? It's not easy but it's worth spending time on a killer 1 or 2 line pitch if you want to catch an agent or publisher's eye.

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

(With sincere thanks to the agent who so kindly gave me her time!)

Recommended Books About Writing

41CAPCX8P5L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU02_[1]
41CAPCX8P5L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU02_[1]

I've been editing for the last two weeks so apologies for the lack of blogs. I taught a writing workshop yesterday and this is the list I gave the writers at the end of the class (along with other notes that I'll post at a later stage). I love good books about writing and here are some of my favourites. I'd advise every anyone interested in writing to invest in and read Stephen King's book, it's excellent. Yours in writing,

Sarah X

On Writing by Stephen King Inspiring and full of good advice.

From Pitch to Publication by Carole Blake Invaluable guide to getting published from an experience agent.

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.

Write Away by Elizabeth George Excellent if you want to write crime.

See Jane Write by Sarah Mlynowski and Farrin Jacobs Tips on writing fiction for a female audience – American book – useful if you are interested in writing popular fiction.

Writing for Success by Patricia O’Reilly Sensible advice with a useful Irish slant.

Write a Book in a Year by Jacinta McDevitt Another great Irish book – I think it’s out of print, but you might find a copy in the library.

How Not to Write a Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman Funny, light humored book about how to avoid common writing pitfalls.

The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner (American) A fascinating book described as ‘a riveting safari through the wilds of a writer’s brain.’ Ever wondered what exactly editors think about when faced with a manuscript, then this is the book for you!

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott More memoir than writing guide, but very entertaining.

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg How to ‘free the writer within’. Some interesting thoughts and ideas about writing.

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 8 - Publishers/Getting Published

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

Welcome to the final week of Write That Book. Today I will cover submitting directly to a publishing house. At a later stage I will look at self-publishing and ebooks, so look out for that soon.

Publishers

Once you are happy with your manuscript, it’s time to decide who to send it to. All of the Irish publishers (and Irish offices of the UK publishers) still accept unsolicited manuscripts, which is good news if you haven’t secured an agent. See last week’s blog – week 7 – for how to prepare your manuscript for submission (to an agent or a publisher). For most UK publishers you will need an agent – again, see week 7 for information on this and a list of recommended agents.

It is very important to match your book to the right publisher. There’s no point sending a crime novel to a children’s publisher for example. Do your research. Find out the kind of book each publisher actually publishes. Visit your local bookshop or library and have a look on the shelves. Familiarise yourself with what the various publishers actually bring out. Some of them specialize, some are more general publishers. Some publish children’s books, others don’t.

For a full list of who’s who in Irish publishing, www.writing.ie can’t be beaten. Check it out here:

If you are interested in writing either children’s books or popular fiction (the areas I know the most about), these are the main Irish publishers to try:

Poolbeg Specialise in popular fiction. Poolbeg discovered Marian Keyes, Sheila O’Flanagan, Patricia Scanlon, Melissa Hill, Cathy Kelly and many others. As they only publish in Ireland (although they do sell on other rights), most writers move to an international publisher after a few books (as was the case with me for example). But it’s a good place to start if you write popular fiction.  Editor - Gaye Shortland Submission details on their website - www.poolbeg.com

O’Brien Press Publish children’s fiction, adult fiction and non fiction, especially Irish interest books. They are the biggest and best children’s publishers in Ireland and also sell a lot of international rights to their books. Editors  – Ide Ni Laoghaire and Helen Carr Submission details on their website -  www.obrien.ie

New Island General publisher (not children’s at the moment, but this may change). They are small, but strong and are especially good at publishing edgy fiction. Editor – Eoin Purcell Submission details on their website:  www.newisland.ie

Little Islands Children’s fiction for readers of 6/7+. They are a relatively new publishing house, but they have already made quite a name for themselves in Ireland, with several award winning books for young readers. Editor – Siobhan Parkinson

Submission details on their website: www.littleisland.ie

Irish offices of UK publishers:

Penguin Ireland Publish all kinds of fiction and non fiction. Also accept children’s books. Very strong popular fiction list and non fiction list. Editor - Patricia Deevy Submission details on their website:  www.penguin.ie

Hachette Ireland Again very strong on popular fiction and have also published a young adult series set in Dublin called The Butterfly Novels. They are only accepting non fiction unsolicited submissions at the moment. For fiction submissions, you will need an agent. Editor - Ciara Considine Submission details:  www.hachette.ie

Transworld Ireland Publish both fiction and non fiction and have a strong stable of authors. Editor – Eoin Mc Hugh

Submission details: www.transworldireland.ie

Once You Have Sent Out Your Manuscript, What Next?

Most Irish publishers will get back to you within three months. Be patient – it’s best not to ring within this time. Few send out an email or postcard to say they have received your manuscript (unfortunately), they are just too busy. If they like your work, they will get back to you, that’s the honest truth.   

The Truth about Advances

Whatever you read in the papers, few authors get large advances. Most get royalties based on their sales. These are usually from 7 to 10 % of the price of the book. On the plus side, Irish writer’s royalty earnings are tax free up to a 40k cap if you work is deemed 'worthy' - you can apply for the artist's exemption after publication from the tax office.

Once You’ve Submitted - Keep Writing

Don’t get discouraged. Getting published is hard and there will be many set backs along the way. Even J K Rowling was turned down by many of the top publishers – including Penguin and Harper Collins. Don’t just sit around waiting for an agent or publisher to get back to you, keep writing.

Recommended Book: The Best Book for Writers That I Have Ever Read

For a real insiders guide to how the publishing industry really works, read From Pitch to Publication. Written by Carole Blake, one of the top UK literary agents, this book is full of useful information on the publishing business, submitting a manuscript, contracts and troubleshooting. I can’t recommend it highly enough - it’s the definitive guide to getting published.

Best of luck with your writing and publishing journey!

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

Top Tips from Alison Walsh, Experienced Editor

(Ex-Tivoli and Harper Collins)

1. Don't send publishers a 'rough draft' of your work, in the hope that they might transform you into a bestseller: it is your job to see that your work is the best it can possibly be before submitting it to a publisher.

2. There are a range of outlets for short stories: Some magazines - eg Woman's Way - publish them - take a look at a range of magazines to see if your work would be suitable.

3. If you have written a novel, you can approach publishers direct, but do your homework - don't send your thriller set in the Florida drugs underworld to a religious publisher. Find the company that publishes books in your market, whether it be a self-help guide to quitting smoking, or a romantic novel, and send them a sample of your work.

4. Most publishers like to see a synopsis and 2-3 sample chapters, rather than the entire manuscript, along with a covering letter. This should explain briefly what the book is about and who you are, mentioning any writing credits, if you have them. All publishers receive a large number of manuscripts, so if you don't hear back within a week, don't feel disheartened - the process can take a month or so, sometimes longer.

5. If the answer is no, don't give up, send it to the next publisher on your list. Every writer, no matter how famous, has been rejected at some stage, and it's all part of the process.

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

Write That Book - Week 6 - Editing

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

Welcome to Write That Book, the free eight week online writing course. If you've missed weeks one to five, covering getting started, characters, plot and lots more, it might be helpful to read them first.

This week we’ll be taking about editing. Once you’ve finished the first draft, then comes the hard bit, the edits and the rewrites. Yes, plural. The first draft is just the beginning. Have patience. Rewrites make the difference between a published writer and an unpublished writer.

Before you even think of sending your book out to an agent or to a publisher, you must make it as good as you possibly can. Some people are excellent at editing their own work, others need help. Here is how I edit a manuscript before it goes anywhere near my agent or editor:

I print out the whole manuscript, read it and make notes as I go along in a (yellow) notebook. If you read this blog on a regular basis, you’ll know that I’m addicted to yellow legal pads.

Some authors suggest waiting a little while before reading. William Trevor puts his writing in a drawer for a year before taking it out to work on it again, and although it is good to get a little distance from your work if possible, I quite honestly don’t have the time for that, so I tend to get stuck in to the editing process straight after finishing the first draft.

For me, there are three stages of rewriting (and I’m sure I got some of this from a book on editing once upon a time, but apologies, I can’t remember the title):

1/ The first rewrite – structure

Step one - I read through my (printed) manuscript carefully, focusing on the overall structure of the book. I use a notebook to jot down thoughts, I scribble on the pages, I put lines through scenes that don't seem to work. Once I've read the whole thing through on paper and made all my notes, I start working on the computer again - I may add scenes, or delete any unnecessary ones. I may even get rid of characters at this stage - kill your darlings as they say. Or I may combine three small characters into one – say a teacher, neighbour and babysitter – they could become one much stronger character rather than three bit players. And many people do more than one job after all!

I re-arrange chapters, and I work on making the opening of the book more dramatic and the ending unforgettable. I add as much drama as possible and cut anything that slows down the action.

This takes a few weeks (sometimes a couple of months, depending on the book) and I find it tough going, but also very satisfying, watching the book’s structure take shape and improve as I chip away at the raw material and re-form it, scene by scene.

2/ Rewriting for meaning

Step two - I make sure everything in the book is clear to the reader. Sometimes I am so close to the characters and the plot that I leave vital information out. I make sure the book runs logically – especially if the time shifts around. And I make sure my characters stay ‘in character’.

I add ‘colour’ sometimes, a couple of lines here and there to enable the reader to imagine the setting; and I take out anything that is not vital to the plot or my characters’ journey.

3/ Rewriting for style

The final step - I work on making the prose as strong and as full of life and vitality as I can. I also work on the dialogue, making sure it’s as good as I can make it.

I make sure every description is strong and not over-written, and I delete any lazy descriptions – ‘white as snow’ etc – and replace them with something more original.

And of course I clean up any typos, spelling or grammar mistakes as I go along – that goes without saying!

After I’ve done the above between two and eight times depending on the book, I finally send it to my agent and editor for their notes. Phew!

If you find self-editing very difficult, or just want another opinion, ask someone you know and trust to read your work. A word of advice, don’t give it to your mother to read – it’s her job to love it!

Ask your reader to be honest. Ask them which parts they liked and which they found slow or boring. Ask them to comment on the characters, the plot, the writing and the pace. Once they have given you their honest opinion, listen to what they have say and try to work out how you can make your book better. Does it need a stronger opening scene; is the action bogged down with irrelevant detail; are there too many subplots vying for attention? Has your reader picked up on the overall ‘theme’ of your book, on what you are trying to say in your work, or not?

If your friends or family can’t help, you could try asking a local librarian or bookseller to read your book for you. If you still can’t find anyone to read your manuscript, never fear. There are professional readers out there who are willing to help you. Cornerstones (UK based) and Inkwell Writers (Dublin based) are two highly respected companies that may be able to help. I've mentioned them before, but they are worth mentioning again.

This is one of my favourite quotes on the editing process:

At one time I thought the most important thing was talent. I think now that the young man or the young woman must possess or teach himself, training himself, in infinite patience, which is to try and to try until it comes right. He must train himself in ruthless intolerance--that is to throw away anything that is false no matter how much he might love that page or that paragraph. The most important thing is insight, that is to be--curious--to wonder, to mull, and to muse why it is that man does what he does, and if you have that, then I don't think the talent makes much difference, whether you've got it or not.William Faulkner, Paris Review interview

Stay Positive

If you get some negative feedback (from outside readers or an editor) try not to get disheartened. All professional writers have to deal with editorial comments and suggestions, it's part of the job, and yes, some are negative. Pick yourself up and get on with making your book even better. Rewrite and keep rewriting until you can honestly do no more. You’ll never be totally happy with your book - even when it’s published - but it will come to a stage when it’s time to let go. And then begins the scary and nerve wracking part - letting go of your baby and sending it to an agent or a publisher, which we will talk about in weeks seven and eight. For now I will leave you with this quote:

Writing is a hard way to make a living, but a good way to make a life. Doris Betts

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

PS After fifteen years of writing, the last manuscript I sent to my editor, Ask Amy Green: Dancing Daze, came back with only three editorial comments - less than a page. Which is a miracle. Maybe I'm finally getting to grips with this writing life!

Write That Book - Week 5 - Staying Motivated

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

Welcome to week 5 of Write That Book. If you're new to the blog, I'd recommend reading weeks 1 to 4 first. This week are are talking about motivation.

Sometimes writers get to around 30k or 40k words and then they hit a wall. 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 this week’s 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. The average novel is 100,000 words long after all. 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. 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

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.

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.

As I’ve said before never use ‘I’m too busy’ as an excuse. Your house will probably be less tidy, the loo seat won’t get fixed in your life time 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 do it . . .

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.

Find out more about Clare here.

Write That Book - Wk 4 - Plot

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

Welcome to week four of Write That Book. So far we have covered motivation and getting started, genre, ideas and creating characters. This week we will talk about ‘plot’, or story.

The first question I am always asked regarding plot is how do you come up with a story in the first place, and the second question is how do you plan a book, and indeed, should you plan at all?

I’ll answer the second question first - there is no right or wrong way of plotting a book. Many writers - the crime writer James Lee Burke for example - never use plot outlines. They just write blind. At the other extreme the author Jeffrey Deavers outlines are almost as long as his books, and J K Rowling spent months planning each Harry Potter book carefully. For most people, plotting is a process of trial and error and it may take a while to find what suits you as a writer. Using a plot outline is a method that works for many writers starting out.

What’s a plot outline?

A plot outline is simply an outline of how your story is going to progress. There’s no need to stick rigidly to your outline once you are writing if you’d prefer not to; think of it as your safety net, a document to refer to when you’re a little stuck or need a reminder of where your story is heading.

So now to the second part of the question - how do you come up with the story?

That’s a difficult one to answer as the story tends to build organically. For me, it starts with a major problem or dilemma. How the character deals with this problem, that’s my plot.

I’ll give you an example. At the beginning of The Shoestring Club (my latest book for adults) the main character, Julia is bombarded with problems – her best friend announces her engagement to Julia’s ex-boyfriend, Julia loses her job, and then she starts binge drinking. How she deals with all these things, that’s what I’m interested in dealing with in the book, that’s my plot. A book (popular fiction) is roughly 100,000 words long, so make sure you have to have enough drama to fill it the pages. Take some time to really think about your plot before you start writing your novel. The more work you do on both character and plot beforehand, the better your book will be.

I would suggest that you at least need to know the beginning of your story and have a clear idea of how your story ends. As for the middle – if you’re a planner in life, by all means plan the middle, if you are not a planner, you might prefer more freedom. Some writers produce detailed chapter-by-chapter outlines, and if this suits you go right ahead. But remember that your characters may not stick to your outline and if this happens, just go with it. Never force characters into doing things in your book just because your plan dictates it. For the record, I’m a planner but if my story veers off in different directions, I go with it, see where it takes me.

How should I open the first chapter?

As dramatically as possible. Your first scene is vital, it must pique the reader’s interest. Try starting the book just before something attention grabbing/interesting/different happens - a murder, a wedding, a marriage break up, an accident, a birth, a funeral. This incident is your narrative hook. Starting your book just before this incident means that the reader will have some idea what impact the incident will have on the characters.

Always open with a strong and attention grabbing sentence to draw in your readers. For example:

 ‘It is a truth universally known that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

Or try this for impact:

‘They said I was a drug addict.’

Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes.

Over the next week study the openings of some of your favourite books and think about why they work.

What next?

Once you have opened the book (hopefully with a bang) and introduced your main characters it is vital to keep your readers interested. Present your characters with problems to solve and difficulties to overcome, and make them take action. Keep the dialogue snappy and realistic, and keep descriptive passages to a minimum (especially if writing popular fiction or children’s books) - they can slow down the pace of the book. Also try to avoid too many flashbacks where possible for the same reason while starting out, this isn’t as relevant for seasoned writers (in fact, in some novels the flashbacks make the book). And throw in lots of surprises and twists along the way to keep your readers on their toes. Ideally the action should come to a heart-gripping climax, and then a satisfactory and well thought out resolution or ending.

Every scene in your book must have meaning, it must tell the reader something about the character, or move the story along. If it doesn’t, it has no place in your book. Write your book scene by scene and take infinite care each time you sit down at your desk to craft the best scene you can. Give it your all, every single writing day.

Next week we will deal with endings and staying motivated. After that, editing and getting published. Until then, happy writing.

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

 Writing Tips from Cathy Kelly

(More great tips on her website here)

1/Write the sort of book you'd like to read. I considered writing a 'clogs and shawl' book years ago and never did it because I didn't like reading that type of book. The moment I began writing what I enjoyed reading, I was hooked and couldn't stop.

2/ Be true to yourself. This is a bit like hint 1. Don't try and copy anybody or write the Booker Prize winner if that's not you.

3/ Enjoy it. Writing can be hard work but if you don't love it and have fun doing it, you'll never finish a book.

4/ Plot-wise, know roughly where you're going but I've never found that a detailed plot-plan in advance helps as it stops the novel developing in its own way. If your characters come alive on the page, then they will move the plot themselves and if you keep rigidly sticking to a pre-ordained idea, you will lose something. Treat your plot like a living thing that grows and changes.

5/ Show don’t tell. Telling means narrating the story endlessly instead of actually showing what happened via scenes. Telling is easier but less interesting for the reader. Showing can be a couple of lines of dialogue relating to the past, but it brings the reader back to a real moment in time and that can be more powerful than four pages of narration explaining what happened.

6/ Have courage. If you write for days and think it's rubbish, then join the club! All writers are riddled with self-doubt. Just don't throw out the stuff you hate, because in a month, you might re-read and think it's not so bad after all.

Write That Book – Week 3 - Creating Characters

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

My Latest Book (UK, Sept)

 So now we’ve reached week 3. The question is, have you been doing your homework? Good! If you've just joined us, it’s probably best to read weeks one and two before going any further.

In week 1 we dealt with motivation and starting to write, then we covered ideas and settings in week 2. This week we are dealing with characters. If you cannot write vivid, believable characters, then you cannot write good fiction, it’s as simple as that. Characters that linger in the mind long after you’ve read the last page make a book truly memorable. Think of Rachel Walsh in Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes, a highly flawed character, but a character readers identify with; or Bridget Jones in Helen Fielding’s wonderfully funny book (and film). Like her or loathe her, Bridget certainly continues to touch a universal nerve.

Creating believable characters is one of the most exciting and rewarding elements of being a writer. To write great characters you must know them as well as you know yourself. In her excellent book, From Pitch to Publication, agent Carole Blake says ‘To make the reader care for your characters and storyline, you must certainly care for them.’ And she's right.

So by now you have your general idea and your setting – next you need to create authentic and compelling characters. How? Read on.

Your characters must be three dimensional, and you, their creator must understand them and their motives for doing things, their passions, their fears, their dreams. Ponder real people’s motives. Why does your friend excuse her ex husband for regularly forgetting to ring his young daughter? Why does your sister think her husband is having an affair? Question why people do things all the time, make the world your laboratory.

Before you begin writing chapter one, here’s a practical tip that might work for you if you’re starting out. Get your notebook out and write character sketches for each of your main characters. Start off by giving them names. Choose these carefully. Try the phone book or a baby names book for ideas if your mind goes blank, but remember, the name must suit the character. Make the names interesting and memorable. No Mary or Jane Smiths please, unless you are making a point (maybe you want your character to feel anonymous – with apologies to any Marys or Janes out there!).

Here are the names I chose for my latest book, The Shoestring Club. I came up with the central book theme first – two sisters who run a second-hand designer shop, one sister going through some pretty awful things – losing her best friend, breaking up with her boyfriend, losing her job (we will talk about plotting next week); then I fixed on the setting, the second-hand designer clothes shop (Shoestring) in Monkstown, and the girls’ house in Dalkey.

Here are the main characters:

Julia Schuster (Jules, or Boolie) – she’s artistic and can be difficult

Pandora Schuster (never shortened) – she’s loyal and stubborn

Bird Schuster (their 70 year old granny) – strong and a little crazy

Arietty Pilgrim (their zoo keeper friend) – regal, clever, different

Lainey Anderson (Julia’s ex-best friend) – traditional dresser, but would like to be as quirky as Jules

Iris Schuster (Pandora’s 8 year old daughter) – sweet and bright

Remember – pick strong, memorable names that suit the character.

For more on naming characters in children’s books see here

One you have the names pinned down, build up a detailed character sketch or biography for each main character. You need to know everything. For example, their age and birthday (so few books have birthdays in them – I don’t think most writers think of giving their characters an actual birth date!). What type of person are they? Their height, hair colour, eye colour, size. Can they dance, play any instrument, sing? Do they have parents, siblings, friends?

What are their hopes, dreams, passions, disappointments? Do they have a dream job? Did they attend college/university? What did they study? What do they read, watch, listen to?

Here’s another tip: if you are finding it difficult to form a strong picture of what your character looks like, make her/him look like a real person but make modifications to suit. Give her/him the girl in the video shop’s curly hair, the milkman’s nose, the librarian’s smile. I wouldn’t suggest using friends or family for obvious reasons. Magazines are excellent for inspiration. If you see someone in the magazine you like the look of, tear the page out and keep the picture beside your character’s biography.

Continuity is another reason for keeping detailed character sketches (and this is vital if you are thinking of writing a series - this is called your 'Character Bible'). You don’t want your character’s eyes changing colour half way through the book; by keeping detailed physical notes, you can check back and get it right every time. Your editor will love you for it. Don’t have too many main characters. More than six and it gets confusing for the reader and for you.

And remember, your characters must be memorable. Make them BIG, larger than life. Make them feel things deeply. Don’t be afraid of making them too big, you can always tone them down at the editing stage (much more on editing later in the course).

In the Ask Amy Green books (age 10+), I have a character called Clover Wildgust. She’s brave, strong and completely wild; she has long white blonde hair and thinks more in terms of costume than fashion. She has a musician boyfriend, Brains, and she works in a teen magazine as the agony aunt. She’s a HUGE character and she’s also most of my readers’ favourite character. They identify with Amy but they want to be Clover.

Now get working on your own characters, because next week your characters will get the chance to tell their story as we move on to plot. And finally, some tips from another Irish writer, Cecelia Ahern.

If you have any questions or comments, please do post them below.

Happy writing!

Sarah X

 Writing Tips from Cecelia Ahern

(Read the full 10 tips from Amazon here)

1. Write about something you feel passionate about. You must write about something that evokes genuine emotions within yourself and not a piece of work you think other people want to read.

2. Listen to what your characters are telling you. If you're becoming bored with your story and are rushing by one part to get to another, then that means the reader will feel exactly the same. This means you're heading in the wrong direction in the book, you're taking the characters to a place that they don't want to go to. This is when you need to listen to your characters, I find that even though I'm trying to steer a story in one direction, the character is dragging me in another. When you listen to your characters it helps you stay away from going down the predictable route and you want to have your readers hanging on until the very last minute.

3. Always carry a pen and paper with you. You never know when an idea will jump into your head while you're out and about. I find that it's best to write while the idea is fresh in your mind as the words will flow more freely.

4. Keep a notebook of ideas. Even if you begin a story and it doesn't work, keep it for another time and it may work in the future when your mind has had the opportunity to think it over.

5. Give your work to somebody to read while you're writing. It's a good idea to choose someone who is open minded and willing to accept different ideas and not just one style of book. There's no point asking someone who loves only romances to read a book on crime. It's good to have a critical eye view your work, someone who is not attached to the story as you are.

More writing advice from Cecelia in Woman and Home here

Visit Cecelia’s website here

Write That Book - Week 2 - Genre, Ideas and Inspiration

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

Welcome to week two of Write That Book.  This week we will talk a little more about ‘genre’ and also ideas and where they come from.

If you missed week one (and I’d recommend reading it before you go any further – you can find it on this blog), we talked about motivation, making the time to write, and ‘genre’, or the kind of book you’d like to write, for example: romance, romantic comedy, family/relationship drama, historical fiction, saga, crime, thriller, science fiction or fantasy. These are pretty broad genres and within each one there can be many sub-genres, like paranormal romance (Twilight). This course is useful for anyone who would like to write a book, but is most especially suited to those who are interested in writing popular fiction. I have published ten popular fiction novels, the latest being The Shoestring Club (out on 1st February in Ireland, UK in September), as well as many children’s books, so it’s a genre I know well.

While you are thinking about book ideas this week (more on that in a second), I would also advise you to get reading the best novels in your chosen genre, the award winners, the ‘word of mouth’ books your friends and family recommend, and the bestsellers. This may sound like a contradiction - but most great writers are also great readers. And where better to discover what works and what doesn’t work than between the covers of your favourite books? Stephen King says in his excellent book On Writing: ‘If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write’.   

While reading, pay attention to the types of characters, the dialogue, the use of descriptive passages (if any), the length of the book, the style of writing. Is it written in the past or present tense? Is it first person (I woke up), or third person (Sarah woke up)? Let the books that you read inspire you but don’t try to imitate them in your own work unless you are writing fan fiction (fiction directly influenced by a particular writer, not for publication and mostly posted online on special fan sites). It is most important to be original and to have an original writing voice. It is your own unique writing voice, like your own speaking voice, that will make your book stand out from the crowd. More about voice later in the course.

Ideas and Inspiration

‘Where do you get your ideas?’ This is the most common question that writers are asked. It’s a difficult one to answer, as ideas come from all sorts of places: from magazines and newspapers; in shops and on buses; from people chatting; from travelling; from trying to imagine what would have happened if you had made a different choice in your life; from books; from plays and films; from dreams and daydreams. Ideas are all around you, just waiting to be soaked up. The core idea for a book could stem from something that has happened to you or to someone that you know. Many of my books are based on personal experiences, changed to fit the plot and suit the characters. I’d suggest that you start to keep a writing notebook right now and to jot down ideas as they pop into your head. Carry it with you at all times, you never know when inspiration might strike!

To give you an example of a practical way of finding inspiration I picked up Saturday’s Irish Times Magazine and here are some ideas I gleaned from its pages – these are settings/ideas/characters that might suit a romantic comedy: 1/ A girl who runs a vintage clothes store and what happens on her buying trips – inspired by an article on a shop in Kilkenny called Shutterbug (brilliant name!). In fact, my latest book, The Shoestring Club is set in a similar shop. 2/ The life of a young Irish fashion designer and fashion illustrator – great piece on rising stars of the Irish fashion world in the magazine. Some fascinating people with most interesting jobs. And we’ll be dealing with creating big, interesting characters next week. 3/ There is also a piece about two young Irish women who are working for a gourmet food store in New York – now a story using that bakcground would be brilliant, what a setting!

I also love finding unusual names in magazines and newspapers – in the same magazine there is a model called Danielle Winckworth – what a fantastic surname to borrow for a character. More on naming next week too – naming characters is so important. 

It’s vital that you chose something that you are passionate about and find fascinating to write about. Your subject must consume you. If it doesn’t, if it’s something that you decided to write about because it sounded like the kind of thing readers/agents/publishers might like, stop right there, the reader will quickly sense this and move on.

It is a bit of a cliché, but it’s often best - when starting out - to write about what you know - that way you’ll be more confident about your subject. Or to focus on something you’ve always wanted to find out more about. For example I know a little about ballet and I wanted to include a young Irish ballerina in my next teen book (Ask Amy Green: Dancing Daze, out in September), so I interviewed two ex-dancers, read lots of books on ballet and ballerinas, watched Romeo and Juliet several times on DVD (the ballet my character was starring in), and travelled to Budapest to attend the ballet there, as the book is partly set in Budapest – ie I did my homework!

Even if you think you know a subject well, research is vital to make your book realistic and authentic. Read all you can about your chosen subject eg ballet. Take out library books and study them and make notes. Scour newspapers and magazines for interesting articles and keep them in a research folder. Use the internet. Research is particularly important for historical novels and your local library will prove invaluable. I’ve always found talking to someone who does the job I want to write about is the most useful research tool of all, and all kinds of people have happily given me their time – zoo keepers, female politicians, Olympic sailors. Most people love talking about their job (especially if it’s a particularly interesting one). They can provide the tiny details that will make your book authentic and ‘real’.

You will probably find that you use a small fraction of your research in the actual book, but it will give you the confidence to create your book’s world and its characters. Think of it as an iceberg - only the tip shows but without the mass beneath it would sink. Hemingway once said: If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water.

So you’ve chosen your genre and you have an idea, what next? Now select your setting. This could be somewhere familiar to you, Dublin, London or Cork for example. Or it could be a fictional town or village - you decide. People do love reading about unusual and slightly different places. I love travel and I often put my trip locations in books – Budapest, Paris, Miami. Writers such as Marian Keyes and Claudia Carroll have chosen to set some of their books in glamorous worlds: LA and a movie set in Ireland respectively. In my books I have used lots of different settings that interest me - a kite maker’s loft, an art gallery, a wildlife park, and a children’s bookshop to name a few. If you can’t visit the place where you want to set your book, interview someone who has, read travel books and watch travel videos or programmes.

So your homework this week is this: select your genre, find an idea for your book (making sure it’s something that you are passionate about and fascinated by – and starting your research on the subject if needs be), and fix on a setting. Plus throughout the course, continue to read as many of the best books in your chosen genre as you can.

Next week we will talk about the most important (and fun) element of all, the characters.

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX