Answered by Jane Wenham-Jones
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Copyright © 2016 Jane Wenham-Jones.
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Shakespir Edition 2017
Jane Wenham-Jones has been Writing Magazine’s agony aunt since 2005. This is how she describes her role…
“My monthly column in , ‘Talk It Over’, is a discussion of some sort of writing dilemma – from what to do if your work keeps getting rejected, for example (have a stiff drink and send it out again), to whether it’s a good idea to give up the day job to do it full-time (probably not!), and why you can never get past the 10,000-word mark when you try to write a novel (you’re being a wimp – don’t give up so easily).
Doing it is particularly special to me as I can remember reading Writing Magazine and sister publication, Writers News (they are now combined into one volume) when I first started out, and gazing enviously at all those tales of book deals etc. Writing Magazine is a very useful source of information if you’re any sort of writer or would like to be – there’s lots of info on markets, competitions, who’s looking for what and so on as well as interviews, how-to articles – and Me! :)”
This e-book features a hand-picked selection of ten of those Talk it Over columns intended to help or inspire you, whether you are a new writer seeking guidance or you are further along the path to publication and need reassurance that you are doing the right thing.
Read the questions posed by Writing Magazine readers and Jane’s replies, with additional updates to reflect the changes to the writing industry and book world that have taken place since these columns first appeared. Where other authors’ books have been mentioned, it is likely they have published other work since, so rather than list them all, we have provided you with their latest titles (at the time) and / or their publisher name, so you can check them out yourself, if you wish.
Problem no.1: I can’t get it down on paper (2008)
I’m an aspiring writer aged twenty-two but I seem to lack the confidence to actually get going! This may be because I have no idea why I want to write, just that I do. I’m not even sure I’m any good at it! I excelled in English Literature at school but I am not so naive as to believe that writing a novel is in any way similar to GCSEs and A-Levels. The main problem is that, while good at analysing literature and writing essays, fictional and creative writing pieces were what I struggled with; I seemed to lack imagination.
I build characters up in my head, totally accidentally (I am very prone to daydreaming and creating imaginary scenarios when I should be doing other things). I just cannot seem to be able to get any of it on paper when I actually want to! Does this mean that I can’t write and am actually wasting my time and energy?
Katie Howe, Wrexham, North Wales
No it doesn’t. It means that – as far as writers go, anyway! – you are entirely normal. Neither does it sound to me as if you lack imagination – otherwise why all the daydreaming and imaginary scenarios? What you are experiencing is a lack of confidence and I can assure you it gets to us all – however many times we’ve been there before. Margaret Kaine (), whose latest novel, Ribbon of Moonlight (Hodder), is the author of six books yet she can still empathise with you. Whereas you at least have your characters in your head and have thought up some scenarios, Margaret cheerfully admits: “I never have a clue when I begin.”
“That blank page seems so intimidating,” she explains. “When I began my first novel, I didn’t even have a plot. Then, because all the writing books advised, ‘write about what you know’, I thought back to my first childhood memory, and nervously began with that. One page led to another and Ring of Clay gradually evolved.”
This is very important. See how she overcame the problem? She started writing anyway. I have put that in bold print because whatever else I and others say, it will all boil down to that. There is only one answer to your predicament and that is to just take a deep breath and get on with it – whether you know what to write or not. Try it and see.
Get hold of a kitchen timer – any old cheap one will do – and set it for half an hour (put it outside the door if the ticking irritates you). Then sit comfortably at your keyboard or notepad and off you go. Write anything – whatever comes into your head – think back to one of those characters and describe them. Or remember one of the scenarios you’d conjured up and start relating it. Don’t read back over what you’ve written, don’t stop to worry about grammar or punctuation, don’t even concern yourself over whether it makes any particular sense. Just write and keep writing until that buzzer goes off.
Later, when you look at it again, some of it may make no sense at all, some may make you cringe or roll your eyes (especially if you have a large glass of wine first – always a good loosener) but I guarantee there will be the essence of something, however slight, that you can work on. And you will also find that the very act of spilling out all those words without censoring yourself in any way will free you up and kick-start your imagination so that more ideas come as you shape the ones you already have.
I suspect that it’s not so much that you cannot get words down onto paper but that when you do, they don’t look nearly as good as you imagined and this deters you from writing any more. It happens to me every time I start a new book. Which is why it takes me what feels like forever to get through the first few chapters – it is just all too easy to become filled with despair and give up for the day.
The only solution, I’m afraid, is to get a grip and plunge on regardless (this is where the stiff drink can come into its own). Novelist Sarah Duncan (), whose third novel is Another Woman’s Husband (Headline), also sympathises and reminds you that you have plenty of time. “I didn’t get going as a writer until my thirties,” she says. “Before that I had lots of ideas that vanished the second they got near paper.”
Sarah suggests joining a creative writing class “so you’ll have to write something” and also recommends keeping a pad handy. “Don’t think about the end product but keep a notebook and whenever you fancy writing something, just jot it down. With luck, one of these snippets will develop into something longer.”
Novelist and Creative Writing tutor Sue Moorcroft () agrees. “I tell my students to only write something they really want to, when they feel like this. Not a whole book, not even a story with a beginning, middle and end, unless it comes to them, just a good scene. Discovering a murdered body, say, or the heroine being slowly seduced by a gorgeous man, or the lad who’s been beaten up by his stepdad all his life, turning round and flattening him. Write something, anything.”
Which reminds me of the fine words of Katherine Mansfield who counselled: “Better to write twaddle, anything, than nothing at all.”
It’s the best advice anyone could give you. So good luck. Go grab that timer!
Problem no.2: I’m retirement age – can I still get started? (2009)
I have written bits and pieces for years but the demands of family and work have meant that I have never had as much time for writing as I would have liked. As I have now taken early retirement, my New Year resolution was to have been to finally sit down and write that novel I have always promised myself. But I feel disheartened before I’ve even started.
You advised Alan Jacobs in the November issue that “nobody cares how old you are as long as you can provide a cracking read” but the bestseller lists and endless articles on how difficult it is to get published these days seem to tell a different story. It appears that unless you are a celebrity or have a famous partner, are young, sexy and beautiful, were once in the government, or played for England, there is no real hope of success. Is it worth me even trying?
Sheila Richardson, Warwick, England
If you’ve always promised yourself you’d write a novel one day then of course it is worth trying. For the joy and satisfaction of fulfilling an ambition, if nothing else. (Although if you could see how exhausted and bad-tempered I look and the state of my Writer’s Bottom as I try desperately to finish mine, you might wonder about the use of my word “joy”.) And there’s no reason why, if you can come up with the sort of “cracking read” I mentioned, you shouldn’t be published as well. Yes, celebrity memoirs are big business but us ordinary mortals get book deals too – at all kinds of ages. Jean Fullerton () describes herself as “an ordinary mother of three in my early fifties.” Her first novel, No Cure for Love, winner of the 2006 Harry Bowling Prize, is about to be published by Orion. She says: “I’m not young or glamorous; I don’t have a famous family nor have I led a particularly exciting life. If I was queuing behind you in the supermarket you would never guess that I had an award-winning novel coming out.”
And she’s not the only one. Janet Gover, () “age fifty and not ashamed of it”, also has a novel out this month. Janet isn’t famous either. She spent years determinedly penning novels while working as “a computer geek”. Her first attempts were rejected, but she kept going through books three, four, five, until “somewhere along the way some magic happened and I found myself – or at least that part of myself that can write.” It took her a quarter of a million words to get there, she told me cheerfully, but The Farmer Needs A Wife is published by Little Black Dress this month. She is now working on the next one. I have no idea if either Jean or Janet will make the bestseller lists but they will certainly have the thrill of seeing their own books in the shops any day soon.
And speaking of those lists, I do wonder which ones you’ve been looking at. At the time of writing (we work quite a long way ahead) The Sunday Times Bestseller list shows a scattering of celebs for sure – Bobby Charlton and Cliff Richard both feature for example – particularly in the hardback section, and mostly with their life stories. But it also includes Philippa Gregory, Elizabeth Noble, and Susan Lewis – none of whom, as far as I know, were famous to start with or have been up to any shenanigans with anyone who is. We can therefore conclude that these bestselling writers must have built up a readership through hard work and writing jolly good books that people want to read. There is another name there you should find encouraging too. Sitting in the top twenty is Dilly Court () with her seventh novel The Constant Heart (Arrow). Dilly and I have the good fortune to share an agent so I was able to speak to both of them about her success.
The Fearsome One describes Dilly as “a woman of a certain age,” and “a completely natural storyteller”, adding sternly “who works very professionally and extremely hard.” I rang off rather hastily at this point before any unfavourable comparisons could be made – I originally promised to finish my current novel by last July – and then called Dilly.
Dilly also sees herself as an ordinary woman and grandmother who has got where she is today by sheer graft. She began writing while she was looking after two of her grandchildren every day, and kept going until she made it. “It took me eight years to get published,” she says, praising the [+ Romantic Novelists Association’s New Writers’ scheme+] as an excellent source of help and support, “so if you really want to do it – go for it. You’re never too old.”
And in case you are wondering, publishers tend to agree. When it comes to fiction, they are looking for good books, not just a pretty face. “Only the book matters,” Alan Samson of Weidenfeld & Nicolson () told me once, saying that reading books by older people was “a refreshing change”. When I last spoke to him, a couple of years back now, the company had recently taken on a novel I’m sure you’ve heard of, called Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Its author, Paul Torday, was retired and in his late fifties. “It’s a great title and a great book,” said Alan at the time. “And no-one here has said: ‘What a shame it’s not by a blonde woman…’”
So there you are – be disheartened no longer. Remember the wisdom that comes with age and that Photoshop can work wonders on one’s wrinkles (I speak from experience!). You’ve made a splendid New Year’s resolution. Now all you have to do is keep it. Good luck!
Problem no.3: I soon dislike my own ideas! (2008)
I want to write a novel and I get plenty of ideas that I think could be the one, but as soon as I start to plan an idea in depth, it all goes wrong. I think about an idea a lot so by that point I’ve got most of the major characters and plots worked out in my head. But as soon as I begin to write it down I dislike the characters, think the plot isn’t gripping enough, or that the idea itself is just terrible.
I find so many reasons not to carry on with it, that I end up scrapping the idea completely. I’ve been through that process half a dozen times recently. Do you have any suggestions?
Shaun Goundry, Newcastle, England
First of all, let me say that I bet there’s not a novelist reading this who doesn’t sympathise, for we all feel like that at some point in the book-writing process. I usually hit my worst crisis of confidence around 32,000 words and that is what this is all about – confidence. I have been out and about speaking at various conferences recently so have had the opportunity to talk to dozens of writers and I can tell you that all report experiencing the feeling that their work in progress is terrible and that nobody will want to read it so they might as well give up – even really successful writers.
Catherine Jones (), the redoubtable and highly entertaining Chair of the Romantic Novelists Association is currently writing her twelfth book but as she told me at the RNA Conference – when we were waiting in the queue for the loo (it’s not all glamour you know) – that she has felt like you do, halfway through every one of them. Everyone around us agreed.
So your feelings are totally natural. You just seem to be getting there a bit early! My first instinct was to suggest that you – to coin a phrase from the famous book by Susan Jeffers () (Vermilion) – Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway! Make yourself keep writing whether you like your characters or not, trust in yourself that it IS a good plot and one that will flourish and grow the more you keep getting it down on screen or paper. Keep at it and don’t pass any sort of judgement until you’re fifteen or twenty thousand words down the line. You might be surprised how attached to your story you’ve become once you’ve got a few chapters under your belt.
I was also inclined to tell you to perhaps do a little less planning at this stage, and more writing – to help you over the block you have about actually getting going. But a writer who came to one of my workshops at the Winchester Writers’ Conference (it was called ‘Hitting the Wall’, for anyone whose novel had ground to a halt and was pretty well attended!) takes a different approach. Nicholas Halliday is a children’s author, illustrator and publisher () who is currently writing an adult novel of his own. Nick believes in taking a long time before committing ideas to paper believing that it is important to “give the idea enough time to marinate” and advises against working on anything before “it has a full flavour”. Nick wonders if you could do with just living with the idea a bit longer before you commit it to paper. “Good ideas are so important but it’s just as important to let the ideas breathe,” he says. “Rather than sitting down immediately after an idea arrives with a pen or the PC, I carry the ideas around for a while. I find growth comes naturally then, rather than being forced.”
He’s in good company – Frederick Forsyth thinks about his novels for an entire year before he actually writes them and it certainly works for him! Other novelists I know of also plan for several months before the writing proper.
But whether you decide to leave it a little longer or plunge in regardless, remember that it’s never going to look that great to start with. You are writing a first draft and they don’t. Nor are they meant to! But everything can be sorted out in the edit and the only way you will get to that happy stage is to get the raw material down first.
In my workshop, we made a list of all the reasons one stops writing a novel. Yours – plot seems weak, characters are unlikeable, idea seems dodgy now I’ve started – were all offered. Along with everything from getting too distracted by what’s on TV to being unsure of the ending or worrying that the first chapter isn’t yet perfect. I guess we collected about thirty in all.
But there’s one word that sums up every one of them – and I speak from experience as I’ve used them all – and that’s EXCUSES. They all simply boil down to our fear of writing a novel that might not be any good, our lack of confidence in our abilities and our shirking away from something that is Very Hard Work. There are no shortcuts, no magic formulas – you just have to get on and do it and know that stopping frequently to think “this is rubbish” is part of the package.
There was not room here to include your most recent idea for a novel that you sent with your letter – and I’m sure you wouldn’t want it shared at this stage anyway – but, for what it’s worth, I thought it was great! So (she said bossily) have faith and get on with it. Good luck!
Problem no.4: How do I choose a name for my heroine? (2008)
I’ve finally decided to start the novel I’ve been talking about for years and am going to begin by writing the character biography of my heroine. However, I am having trouble finding a suitable name. How much time should I spend looking for the right one? Is it very important to the reader or can I just pick any old name out of a baby book? Help!!
Leoni Atkins, Croydon, England
I can only tell you that it feels very important to me. In fact I can’t settle down to a novel, or even a short story, until the name of the main character feels ‘right’.
When I started writing my first book, , I knew my heroine’s name had to begin with a C (don’t ask me why – I have no idea. We writers are an odd lot). I fiddled about with Charlotte and Charlie and Cara and was trying out Carrie but getting absolutely nowhere with either a decision or the manuscript when I met the writer – now a dear friend – Cari Crook. I knew instantly that was it – just changing the spelling made all the difference. Even though the real Cari couldn’t be less like my fictional heroine – in fact she is so diametrically opposite to her in almost every way she would probably want to give her a good slap – I knew the name fitted like a glove.
But since my answers on this page are always bound to be subjective, and in case this was just me being neurotic, I have asked around for you and found that other authors are equally concerned with getting names exactly right.
“There is so much personality in a name,” says Richard & Judy bestseller Victoria Hislop (). “They give characters softness or intelligence, ruthlessness or naivety or whatever traits you might be seeking to describe.”
Giselle Green (), whose novel Pandora (Avon) won the RNA Joan Hessayon Award this year, agrees. “Names – like words – give off a ‘vibe’ and have a set of associations that come with them, too. How differently do we conjure up a heroine called ‘Rose’ to one called ‘Ajax’?”
This is not to say that you shouldn’t use a baby book. Successful novelist Isabel Wolff () does just that. “But I don’t just stick a pin in the book – I choose as thoughtfully as I can.” Sometimes, Isabel explains, she wants to bring an irony to the names she chooses. “I might call an unpleasant male character Gabriel, because he’s going to turn out to be no angel, or a dismally gloomy female character Joy, a frenzied character Serena or a weak character Peter.” But her favourite name of any of her characters, she says, is “absolutely ghastly.” She’s called “Citronella Pratt because I was looking for a name that suggested acidity and stupidity – it does!”
As both of Victoria Hislop’s novels have been set in foreign countries she needed what she calls “exotic names.” She spent hours poring over phone directories in small cafes in both Crete and Granada, adding names to a list of possibles, “until the magic of a Christian and a surname just clicked” for her, “almost like a musical chord.”
Katie Fforde (), whose fourteenth novel Wedding Season (Century) is out now, has several baby books, including a Scottish one. “I’ll have some sort of name in mind and then trawl through until I find the right one. Surnames are tricky too. Place names work well although you have to avoid using places that are close together or people who know that area will notice.”
But if you go through all the books and still nothing leaps out at you? “It could be because you don’t yet know the character intimately enough,” says Giselle Green. “So perhaps the best thing then would be to jump straight into that biography and get a really good ‘feel’ for what the character is like until you have an intuitive sense of what will (or won’t) work for them.”
And remember that even at that stage it doesn’t have to be set in stone. “Thanks to ‘find and replace’ I can change the name of a character two or three times in the course of a book – until I find one that’s right,” says novelist Kate Harrison (). Her latest book The Secret Shopper’s Revenge (Orion) has three heroines. “Emily is innocent and dreamy, Sandie is a no-nonsense businesswoman, and Grazia is a glam Italian with a difficult past. But Sandie had about three names before I chose that one.”
Kate also googles her characters before she finally settles on a name, especially her villains! “You don’t want to get sued for accidentally creating a nasty bit of work with a real person’s name,” she explains.
Although, I have found, sometimes a “real” name fits the bill nicely. You may want to call the hero Cuthbert because he was your first love or the villain Trevor because that was the name of the vile boss you once had (I like to amuse myself this way).
In her latest novel, The Return (Headline), Victoria Hislop has named
one of the key female characters Sonia, after her sister who sadly died before she was born. “I have always wondered what she might have been like,” she explains. “And this is my way of “remembering” her.”
So to sum up, I think we can safely say that YES, names matter; NO, to the pin and when you find the perfect name for your heroine, conjuring up all her finest qualities and unique brand of wit and charm, you’ll know.
“Jane” has a certain resonance, don’t you think…? :)
Problem no.5: Do I always have to show not tell? (2014)
I have finished a novel – a thriller – and the feedback from my writing group is that it is a good idea and story but that I do ‘too much telling’, and that the dialogue is not always natural because the characters speak in very long sentences. I am obviously familiar with the principle of ‘show not tell’ but what does this really mean in practical terms? Sometimes you do have to tell – there are facts and items of information that need to be imparted and surely it will sound contrived not to simply state them, e.g. “John was fifty-six” or “His mother had died three years earlier.” If you show everything, doesn’t it all become rather convoluted and slow down the action?
And as for speaking in long sentences, well, don’t we all sometimes? You should hear my wife! I like to think I am receptive to constructive criticism, but I really don’t understand what is wrong here.
Roger Barkworth, Telford, England
You penultimate, and admirably short, sentence made me smile, Roger. Does your wife read Writing Magazine? If so, your ability to take criticism could shortly come in handy. To address the point about dialogue first, the way your spouse holds forth (or doesn’t – I am not simply taking his word for it, Mrs B!) is largely irrelevant.
My husband and son complain that I tell them everything three times (other wives and mothers may understand why!) and many of us indeed, repeat ourselves. We may talk in long, often disjointed sentences, we contradict ourselves, say the same thing in several different ways and change the subject abruptly if distracted. In real life, listeners take this in their stride, because they are conversing in that way too. But a novel is not a transcript of real conversation, it is only an approximation of it, and it is a work of fiction that is intended to entertain.
While it is useful to take inspiration from “real” dialogue for expressions, turns of phrase, rhythms of speech, etc, you should not aim to reproduce it exactly. Or it becomes very tiresome for the reader to digest. Try breaking up the speech with some actions – he cleared his throat, lit another cigarette, or rolled his eyes – and edit it down to the salient points.
In reality we might well say: “I know it was a Tuesday because I always go to the hairdresser on a Wednesday in the normal way, but on this particular week, I had to change the day because Miriam, who does my hair – lovely girl – got twins you know – was still getting over her glandular fever and Tracy only works part-time…” but it is not the stuff page-turners are made of.
“I know it was a Tuesday because I’d just got back from the hairdresser’s” might well suffice. Especially if the important detail is that it was the last time you saw Fred, who has now turned up in the river with a brick tied round his neck.
There are times when we don’t need the full conversation at all. “I directed him to the Post Office,” tells us all we need to know, whereas a monologue that begins: “Well,” I said, “you need to go straight on until you get to that garage on the corner, the Esso one, and then turn left. Walk along for about fifty metres; there’s a betting shop on your right…” will be useful for the insomniacs but probably not become a bestseller. A judicious edit will no doubt tighten up the dialogue in your novel no end – it is amazing how the deletion of just a few words here and there, can work wonders.
As far as showing not telling goes, I know what you mean and sometimes it is best to Just Say It. However, once again, an endless list of facts can be dull and feel ploddy. Compare and contrast: “Anna was twenty-five and very short. She had long brown hair. She’d lived in Little Bumstead all her life and was fed up with it because it was boring” with this alternative:
“Anna tossed her long brown hair over her shoulder and forced her feet into the perilous heels she always wore in an effort to appear taller. Nobody should be expected to spend their whole life in the same village. If she didn’t escape from the tedium of Little Bumstead soon, she would seriously go mad. Twenty-five years! You got less for murder.”
I’m not saying you should write like that all the time, but check where you could be a little more imaginative in your method of conveying the facts. “John was fifty-six” is fine, as is the detail about his mother, but you may be able to drop this nugget of information in more subtly or smoothly, e.g. “John knew he didn’t look bad for fifty-six.” Or “in the three years since his mother had died, the street had changed considerably.”
Try reading the opening pages of a novel you admire and see how many pieces of information you have gleaned by the end of them. The best storytellers weave the prosaic bits in with their prose so you hardly realise you’ve been told them.
You have been told you have a good story – which is three-quarters of the battle – so it sounds to me as if you now need to give it a really good going-over with an eye to sharpening it all up and cutting back the superfluous.
I’m sure with a spot of tightening and tweaking, you can address this useful criticism. Try reading the dialogue aloud and see if it sounds natural to you – or ask someone else to read it to you. Your wife perhaps, if she’s still speaking to you… :) Good luck.
Problem no.6: How do I make my writing longer? (2008)
I have finally embarked on writing my novel after years of writing short stories (some of which even got published). The problem is the same every time I try a longer piece – it’s way too short. The advice given is always to cut and be concise, take out extra words etc. and to keep the action moving. I had planned on ten chapters but my first chapter is finished already at 3,000 words. At this rate I’ll be lucky if the novel is 30,000 words long! I know you might say I don’t have enough plot but I am convinced that I have a good plot (and subplots) and interesting characters. This is really depressing – have you any advice for me? I really want to write novels but despair of it.
Carol MacLean, Argyll and Bute, Scotland
First of all, do not despair. If you’ve got a good plot, subplots and interesting characters, then you’re off to a pretty fine start and are doing a lot better than some of us when we first sit down to write a novel!
Your problem of needing to write “longer” is not uncommon – especially among short story writers whose skill is in creating a world in few words or journalists who have been trained to cut everything back to the bone.
Melanie Whitehouse () has been a journalist for over thirty years. “I’m used to writing 1,500-word features and often have to get somebody’s entire life story into just 1,000 words” she says, describing how tackling her first novel tested her patience and stamina “to the utmost”. Melanie had planned her chapters to be around 5,000 words long and says: “I’d hide my word count and then check it when I thought I’d done enough. My heart would sink when I found out I’d only written around 3,500 words, which happened every time.”
But she got there in the end – The Tail of Augustus Moon (Book Guild Publishing) came out recently – and so will you.
I would start by forgetting about the word count for the moment and concentrating instead on getting the whole story down on paper. There will be time enough to fill things out, to add texture and colour, later.
Catherine King (), whose gritty Yorkshire sagas are a whopping 120,000 words each, agrees. “Keep going without worrying about final length or style or any other ‘rules’”, she advises. “At this early stage it is important to get the first draft written. Then you can go back and work on each chapter with a clearer idea of what you want it to achieve.” Catherine’s seventh novel, Without a Mother’s Love, is due out in early December so she has had plenty of experience of writing long books. I asked her how to best go about extending a manuscript. “Ask yourself if you have thoroughly explored all aspects that are relevant to your character and plot development in each scene,” she says.
I think you’ll find this much easier once you have the basic story down. Then you’ll be able to see where you might further delve into your characters’ thoughts and emotions, where some additional back story might be useful or where extra description is needed, all of which will get the word count up.
The Fearsome One (my own, dear agent for the benefit of new readers to this column) has long made me keep a post-it note attached to my desk with THE FIVE SENSES written on it – this being a bit of an obsession of hers. But I must admit that keeping them in mind does improve one’s writing no end. So when you go back through your chapters, also check whether you have conveyed to the reader what everything looks / sounds / tastes / smells / feels like. Sometimes we visualise a scene so clearly ourselves that we forget to actually write it down. Maybe you’ll have got your story down in terms of action and dialogue, but will need to go back and see to the atmosphere and the sense of place, the little details that make a novel come alive and as real to the reader as their own lives. You might need to be more flexible about your structure too.
“Why do you only want to write ten chapters?” says bestselling Dee Williams (), who also writes substantial books – her eighteenth saga, All That Jazz (Headline) is out now – and who says her own chapters are around 3,000 words each although this can vary. “If things are dragging,” says Dee, “introduce a new character and use all their baggage in back story, but you must be able to tie up all the ends before the end of the book.” She also wonders if you can’t make more of your sub plots although cautions against letting them “take over”. This can indeed be a problem if you introduce more and more peripheral events to get your word count up – you do need to have a clear through-line, a strong central plot – and adding in too many side stories can just end up in confusion.
Instead, remember that in a novel – unlike a short story – there is time to really get to know the characters, to get inside their heads and totally absorb the reader into their world. I suspect that if you keep writing, without worrying about how long the end product will be, you will begin to get absorbed too. And the more deeply you are involved with your protagonists the more you’ll find extra things occurring to you about them that you’ll want to use. And then, before you know it, you’ll find you’ve written an awful lot more than you thought you would.
So in a nutshell, stop worrying, get writing and I bet you anything that book will be very much longer than 30,000 words even in the first draft. Good luck and don’t forget to let us know when you get it published!
Problem no.7: Do I need to be an “expert” to write a non-fiction book? (2013)
I have an idea for a non-fiction book which I think is marketable and commercial. I know a great deal about the topic I wish to write about but have no formal qualifications in the subject. Will this put a publisher off? I understand one should outline the reasons for one’s suitability as an author, as part of a non-fiction proposal. Is “I have wide experience?” enough or should I invent a degree, a twenty-year consultancy post or some letters after my name, and hope they don’t check me out? How else does one become recognised as an “expert?”
Roger Wilson, Canterbury, England
In my experience, the best way to become instantly considered an expert on any topic is to write a book about it!
I have been called upon to give my “expert” opinion on everything from relationships to wine-tasting to property development – all on the strength of having penned a novel or two with these as the themes. And I certainly wouldn’t let my lack of formal qualifications stand in the way of anything I set out to write in the future.
However, being realistic, it does depend on the subject. If your book is to be entitled Performing Your Own Brain Surgery, then I should imagine any self-respecting publisher would at least expect you to be a member of the British Medical Association.
On the other hand, if it is about worm-keeping and you’ve been successfully breeding the little blighters for thirty years then I would say that is qualification enough, even if you’ve never passed any exams.
Some parenting books, for example, are written by trained nannies or paediatricians but other equally successful volumes have been written by authors who are simply parents.
Sandy Row () is the author of Surviving the Special Educational Needs System: How to be a Velvet Bulldozer – a guide to getting help for special needs children. The book has been widely acclaimed and hailed as indispensable by many professionals in the field but Sandy’s only ‘qualification’ to write it was her own journey as the mother of four children who needed extra support. And I would say, who better placed?
So yes, I believe having ‘wide experience’ is often very much enough, but remember your book proposal is a sales document and you need to present yourself and your potential work in the most tempting light. Thus, you’ll need to expand.
I am assuming your question about inventing degrees and top advisory positions is tongue-in-cheek, but just in case you were even vaguely considering blatantly making things up, then all I can say is: please don’t. It is all too easy (especially in these days of Google, social networking and web-searching) to be found out straightaway and lose all credibility.
It is far better to make the most of what know-how you do have. Explain how you have come to know so much about your chosen subject.
Is it a hobby or interest you have followed for a long time? Have you ever taught it to others? (A little judicious exaggeration can be effective here without straying into actual untruth! The “years of” research you’ve undergone might just be two, for example, and the classes you held might have been an informal gathering of your brother and his mate. But if you feel confident…).
Is there a family tradition at work? If you are writing a book about jam-making, say, or cider-brewing, perhaps your grandmother handed down some tips she got from her grandmother? (This is unlikely to be swiftly disproved by a poke through Facebook.)
If it is more of a mind and spirit type volume – say a book on happiness or beating stress — then mention your own life experience: the author lost everything when his house burned down, his business failed, and his wife left him for the milkman and took the dog with her, but using his six-step plan to fulfilment he is now a millionaire with three girlfriends… etc.
Mention any relevant job you have had, even if it is not directly related. If you are writing about the history of the watering-can, for instance, and you’ve been a teacher or a librarian, it makes you sound learned – even if your subject was Maths or you ran the Children’s section. If it’s anything to do with wellbeing you could mention you’ve worked for the NHS, even if you were once a part-time cleaner at the local doctor’s surgery.
And be prepared to come at your topic from a slightly different angle. I recently wrote a book entitled and I have been joking that whenever I tell anyone I’ve written a diet book, their eyes drop straight to my stomach.
No, I say in my introduction, I am probably not thin enough to be writing a book like this BUT on the other hand, I am not morbidly obese. I’m sure we will all concur with the view that a writer’s lifestyle can be an unhealthy one – all that sitting on one’s backside for hours on end, only waggling your typing fingers, finding solace in wine and chocolate when the plot lags. And in my case, as I freely admit in the text, you can add quite a lot of crisps to that too (the posh, hand-fried sort – no nasty additives!).
So my angle is that I should, by rights, be enormous but in fact my weight, BMI and waist to hip ratio are all within normal parameters. How? Because I follow these fitness tips…
Summing up, Roger, the short answer to your question is no, your lack of a mortar board and gown should not put off any prospective publisher– as long as you can demonstrate why you are the right person to be writing your book. And once you have written it, when the radio stations start ringing, you will find yourself an ‘expert’ whatever your qualifications. Good luck!
Problem no.8: Should I ask for feedback? (2007)
I have recently written a ‘literary’ short story on an unusual subject matter, which I showed to four friends. Two of them immediately understood what I was trying to do and liked it, but the others, whose views are usually worth hearing, were quite negative. They missed the point of the story and questioned why the characters’ relationship progressed the way it did (it is about a same-sex couple with a large age difference between them).
Now I don’t know whether the story is failing because I haven’t put the integral point across clearly enough, or whether it is a case of differing life experiences and how open readers are to other ways of thinking. I appreciate it’s difficult to comment without reading the story, but as a general rule, do you think it is worth getting feedback from others before sending a piece of work to an editor and if so, how much should one listen to it? I fear I’ve become TOO open to others’ opinions and I need to have confidence in both my own ability and that what I want to say deserves to be voiced, even if other readers don’t / won’t understand or want to ‘hear’. But I also want my story to be published. What is your view?
Karen Owen, London.
I am a great believer in having the courage of one’s convictions. If you have something you want to say, then you should say it. I am also an optimist of the bottle being half-full variety, so I would look at it this way. You have a fifty percent thumbs-up on this initial reader survey on your story – which means there is a one in two chance an editor will like it too. But there’s only one way to find out.
Nobody is going to knock on your front door and say – Hey, have you got any unusual short stories that I can publish? If you want to see this story in print you are going to have to bite the bullet and submit it. What is the worst that can happen? Someone else won’t understand what you are trying to do and you’ll lose a bit of postage money. On the other hand, you may make a sale or get some very valuable feedback indeed – from someone who edits short stories on a regular basis.
I cannot possibly guess why two of your friends were negative about this piece of work – it may be their own prejudices coming into play, who knows – but I would question whether they were the right people to ask. I presume you have a target publication in mind? Are these friends familiar with it? Where the story is going to end up makes all the difference. You wouldn’t expect a story written about teenagers connecting through MSN* to interest the editor of a magazine aimed at the over-sixties, and would be unlikely to send a tale aimed at Let’s Get Erotic Monthly for consideration in your local parish magazine.
Your story may have been misunderstood by your friends because they simply do not read that sort of stuff. If you want to write dark, edgy fiction, for example, it is best to go for feedback to someone who enjoys it rather than a friend whose idea of a good book is the Complete Works of Delia Smith (not that Delia isn’t a very fine writer – I can particularly recommend her method of making toad-in-the- hole).
Is it worth getting feedback at all? As always, opinions differ. Novelist Sarah Duncan (), who is also a creative writing tutor for the University of Bristol, believes in getting a wide range of opinions on one’s work is usually a good thing. “In my classes we do quite a lot of work-shopping,” she says, “because in my experience it’s the quickest way to learn – first from other people’s ‘mistakes’, and then from feedback on your own. I’ve seen people who are open to the experience improve really fast – it can be very exciting.”
On the other hand, novelist Lynne Barrett-Lee () never shows any of her work to anyone, except her agent and publisher, until it is actually published, explaining: “I think there’s a danger in getting too much advice and losing ownership of what you’ve written.”
I tend to tread a middle road. Much of my writing goes straight to the editor in question but I will sometimes consult an ‘expert’ on a particular subject – I might for example show a scene set around a hospital bed to a nursing friend to make sure I’d not made any blunders – and when I have a crisis of confidence, I will email an article or chapter to a close, trusted and (published) friend.
In the latter case, they will invariably pick up something I’ve missed. It is terribly easy to be so close to your own work that you don’t spot areas where you have perhaps been unclear or repetitive. But I think one instinctively knows when a criticism is valid and one shouldn’t feel pressured into change if that feeling isn’t there. That is why I choose who I show my unpublished writing to very carefully and would not make fundamental changes to the themes or content of my work if it didn’t feel right. What I am really saying is use the feedback from others as a useful editing aid but do not become a slave to it, compromise your beliefs, or make any alterations that do not speak to you.
If you are happy with your story, then, at this stage, that is enough for me. Take encouragement from the fact that two other people have already enjoyed it and send it out to make its fortune. You’ve nothing to lose and everything to gain. Good luck!
[Author’s note*]: MSN!! That takes me back and shows how long ago this was written. It would be facebook or whatsapp these days of course. But I think the basic principle still holds good….
Problem no.9: My family don’t support me (2008)
I’ve been writing for the past year and I love it even though I’ve not yet had anything published. My problem is my family. My husband shows no interest in my writing and actually seems to resent it, while my teenage children just roll their eyes. Recently I was thrilled to be short-listed in a competition but nobody else took much notice. I am made to feel guilty whenever I disappear to use the computer – especially if one of the kids wants to be on it. “What’s the point?” was my son’s response when I said I was writing a short story. Do you have any advice on how to make them see that writing is a valid activity?
Janet Hills, Reading, Berkshire, England
I know this might not be much comfort right now but you are not alone. You would be amazed how often I hear similar stories from others whose spouses and offspring show little interest in, or even downright hostility to, their writing. Quite what this is all about I don’t know – partners wanting to feel they are the focus of one’s attention, perhaps, and miffed when one’s thoughts are clearly elsewhere? Or simply a total lack of understanding of how difficult writing is. It really is most odd.
One can understand it in very small children. My own son, when tiny, used to squash himself between me and the computer screen or climb onto my lap, get hold of my face and pull it away from what I was doing. I think he was protesting against my being away in that other world we go to when deep in concentration. But there is no excuse once they are older (the answer to your teenager’s question is: “Because I enjoy it, Sonny! Now get lost…”) and as for your husband, sadly this is an all too familiar story.
My friend Sue, a successful short-story writer who has been published all over the world, says: “Don’t even get me started on this subject!” She describes how her husband “though wonderful in many ways” never reads anything she writes and refuses to discuss it, especially in front of others. “If someone asks how my writing’s going or shows an interest and I get into a conversation about it, he’ll sigh heavily in the background and do anything to change the subject.”
While another friend, who wishes to remain nameless, tells how her husband has warned that if she gets a book published she won’t be able to go on any sort of publicity activities unless she wants to end her marriage! And it’s not just the men. One wife I know of has sulked each year for the last fifteen when her partner goes away to an annual writing conference for the weekend!
My own husband, while brilliant these days about holding the fort while I swan about the country, has never been particularly interested in the writing itself and used to be of the what’s-the-point persuasion. I found he perked up considerably when the cheques started arriving and my son became decidedly supportive once I’d explained that’s where his PlayStation had come from!
So if you can contrive to earn some money from your writing – even if it’s only a few quid for a star letter in a magazine – you might find attitudes change. (Now could be a good time to start doing the lottery – if you win a million you can tell them you’ve sold a screen play to Hollywood – that should get a bit of interest!) Although this isn’t always a guarantee.
My friend Maria didn’t even tell her (now ex) husband when she sold her first novel. “I knew I wanted to enjoy the feeling and his attitude would just burst my bubble,” she says, while Fiona Mackenzie () whose book on pet-sitting is published by How-to Books in September, cheerfully describes her family as “wide-eyed with indifference.”
Both agree that this is where writing friends really come into their own so if you haven’t made any yet, I can recommend doing something about that soon. There are all sorts of forums, writing networks and groups on the internet – or perhaps there is a physical writing group you could join locally? There you would meet others who understand the joys and can commiserate with the rejections.
But in the meantime how do you cope when you’re at home? I’m afraid I can’t offer any magic answer – maybe other readers would like to write in with their own tips – but can only suggest, certainly as far as the kids are concerned, taking a firm line. Teenagers’ whole raison d’être is to please themselves and if yours are anything like mine I bet they are perfectly capable of whiling away long hours playing video games, talking on facebook or lying on their beds with earphones clamped to their heads.
Do not feel guilty if you want to go on the computer but explain firmly and clearly that time spent writing is your equivalent and since it doesn’t hurt them, they can jolly well put up with it. It’s called sharing.
Does your husband have any sort of hobby or sporting activity he does regularly? Can you brightly point out that him showing no interest in your short-listing (congratulations by the way!) is just as hurtful as if you merely shrugged every time he comes home all excited because his team has won or he’s got a hole in one? It may simply be that he doesn’t realise how dismissive he’s being (sometimes a good bash over the head with can be effective in bringing it home) but if he won’t change, then you must. Develop a thick skin (always useful to have as a writer to cope with all the rejections) and a philosophical smile, and looking elsewhere for support. But whatever you do, don’t give up something you love! All the best.
Problem no.10: How do I handle rejection? (2006)
I was in such a good mood this morning until the postman gave me my mail. In it was yet another rejection letter from a woman’s magazine. I am very new to writing with the intention of getting published, so these rejections are a new experience for me. One that I am sadly becoming only too familiar with.
What I would like to know, from those who have more experience than me, is: what is the best way to deal with the rejection letters? (Chocolate is my favourite at the moment.) And, do you ever get used to it?
Collette McCormick, County Durham, England
Chocolate is good. So, I find, is copious amounts of white wine with a bag of Kettle Chips. But the best thing you can do for yourself long-term is to remember that rejections are one of the occupational hazards of being a writer and even the most successful scribes chalk them up more often than you might imagine.
Della Galton () has sold over 500 stories, written a dozen serials for the women’s magazines and has just published her first novel: Passing Shadows (Accent Press). “Rejections? I get hundreds, of course – part of the job,” she says matter-of-factly, adding: “I got three yesterday.”
She explains that she has so much work out at any one time (often an amazing sixty stories of hers are doing the rounds) that a mere three coming back is a “drop in the ocean”. But she hasn’t always been that philosophical. Three years ago, she tells me, she had eleven short story rejections in one day, plus a completed serial was turned down, and says, “I cried buckets.” But the next month she saw more sales than she’d ever had in a four-week period and has since sold ten of those eleven stories.
Which highlights the most important thing you have to do when you get a piece of work rejected: send it out again! When I was a child, my terrifying riding instructress had one big rule. When you fell off, which I did often, you got straight back on – never mind your bloody nose and the fact that you’d just been trampled.
Which is probably why my personal rule has always been that a rejected piece goes somewhere else the very same day, although others would counsel leaving it a little longer.
Short Story writer Sue Houghton (), who has appeared in all the Sexy Shorts anthologies as well as numerous women’s magazines advises: “If you were lucky enough to get a few lines from the editor as to why it wasn’t taken, see if you can work on it first to address those comments.” Sue also gives the delightful tip: “Don’t think of a story as being rejected, but ‘declined’. It sounds so much more positive…” She generously reveals that this declining took place on forty-two of her stories before her first sale. She has since sold over a hundred. “Take heart!” she says. “You just have to keep at it.”
Indeed you do. But how do you deal with rejection letters in the meantime?
“Read, mark, learn and digest… if there’s something useful in them,” says Writing Magazine subscriber, Penny Alexander, briskly. “Bin and set light to, if not!”
I must say I have chucked the odd standard letter on the fire, but the personalised ones I have always kept. When I was trying to find an agent for my first novel, I received a rejection so blistering it brought tears to my eyes. It used words like “unfunny” (what me??) “tedious” and “dull”. I thought briefly of throwing myself under a bus but instead swore that one day, when the same novel was published (, published by Bantam, in case by some oversight you’ve never bought it) I would read it aloud to a group of writers and laugh about it.
It took nearly four years to realise that ambition but it was a very sweet moment when it came. Will you get used to rejections? Yes, you will. Although you can always expect to feel a twinge of upset or disappointment when your work gets turned down – that’s only natural. Writer and creative writing teacher Heather Lister says: “I’ve been getting rejections for years, and feel annoyed with myself that they still get me down. It feels like a sort of weight under the ribs. But if they didn’t feel bad, I don’t suppose success would feel so good!”
Successful short story writer and playwright Linda Povey talks of rejections that were once “horrible” becoming merely “bothersome” and says wisely: “All you need in this business is a certain degree of competence and an awful lot of perseverance.”
Finally, never forget that there may be many reasons why a story is turned down other than it not being any good. The editor could have received a lot of stories on the same theme recently or his or her personal taste simply doesn’t coincide with yours. Linda Mitchelmore (), who has had over seventy short stories published, says: “On a ratio of four to one, the rejection tally isn’t pretty!” But she looks at it this way: “I’ve found that after a while, a rejection stops feeling like a personal insult – it’s a bit like being a hostess and you serve a delicious, to-die-for, hideously expensive fish starter only to find your guest hates fish. In other words, it ain’t your fault!”
I hope that helps and that the next letter you get will be a resounding YES. Till then, practice shrugging, keep lots of fresh envelopes handy and have another piece of chocolate. Good luck!
Collette McCormick’s short story ‘Elaine’ has since appeared in the latest Sexy Shorts Anthology: Sexy Shorts for the Beach published by Accent Press Ltd and sold in aid of Cancer Research UK
Note from Jane Wenham-Jones
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Other books by Jane Wenham-Jones
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Short Story Collections:
Jane Wenham-Jones - agony aunt for Writing Magazine - gives advice on literary queries, writing worries and the obstacles faced by anyone hoping to be published. In this volume the questions answered are: 1. I can’t get it down on paper. 2. I’m retirement age – can I still get started? 3. I soon dislike my own ideas! 4. How do I choose a name for my heroine? 5. Do I always have to show not tell? 6. How do I make my writing longer? 7. Do I need to be an “expert” to write a non-fiction book? 8. Should I ask for feedback? 9. My family don’t support me. 10. How do I handle rejection?