Where there was nothing.

I recently posited that writing fiction is a bit pointless if you never want to or don’t seek to share that writing through something as aspirational as publishing or as simple as reading it to your best friend. And now let me explain that I was completely and utterly incorrect.

One of my favorite podcasts is “Dear Hank and John” featuring the vlog brothers, otherwise known as John and Hank Green (yes, that John Green). It is a comedy podcast about death wherein the hosts dole out dubious advice. This week’s episode had John ask Hank if there was a meaning or purpose to human life. Over the course of their discussion, John said that he’d been thinking about the way people create something where there was once nothing; from art to writing to all the other many froms of creation. He then broke out this quote from William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

“I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work – a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.”

And in hearing this quote I was humbled. Obviously, creating something, whatever form that something takes as you fashion it into being, is worthwhile regardless of who else might experience it. I knew this about journal writing already. But apparently I needed some room to see that it applies to the fictions we imagine and eek on to paper as well.

So regardless of whether you choose to share your writing*, I do hope you keep doing it and that its presence in the world makes it better even if only for yourself for the single drop is where every ocean began.

*personally, I’d still like you to share it! That experience too is a mgaical thing.

On Making Time via Joanne Harris

From time to time (get it!?) I like to pull Joanne Harris’ ten tweets about something together and put them in one place. Makes them easier to reference and these ten are ones I want to look back on and you should too. I recently joined a women’s writing course and the number one obstacle to our writing was almost universally “time.” So here’s how she suggests you make time for writing. Italics after are my comments and other info. 

1. We all have 24 hours a day. The trick is trying to separate what you MUST do from what you LIKE to do. Also from what you CAN do because if you’re not realistic, you’ll set yourself up for failure. 

2. If you feel you don’t have time to write, it could be that, deep down, you don’t really *want* to. Sometimes I think this is the only true writers block – there are times when we just don’t wanna. And that’s ok. 

3. If you write for 15 minutes a day, by the end of the week you’ll have had an hour and three-quarters writing time. She later added that it doesn’t have to be 15 minutes each day. Five minutes on a Monday. A half hour another day. Two hours on a Saturday. It adds up!

4. Don’t expect to “find” uninterrupted hours of time every day. You’ll need to use the time available. This was the second most popular tweet of the ten. You also need to cultivate recognising those moments. When you start to open social media – could you stop and write instead? 

5. Accept the fact that you’ll probably have to sacrifice some of the things you enjoy doing. This was the most popular of the ten. And it’s a hard truth for some. I love films and there’s constantly someone telling me about a new amazing TV show. I have to say no to a lot of things I would probably really enjoy. 

6. If you can’t face making sacrifices, maybe you don’t want to write quite as much as you think you do. Similarly, if you can’t face an editor, maybe you don’t really want to be published. Both are fine. You and the world will be keep spinning. 

7. Get up an hour earlier. Give up watching a TV soap. Give up social media. The third most popular. It relates to what I have said above and what every published author I know has said – somethings gotta give. 

8. Not all of a writer’s work happens at their desk. Thinking time is equally important, and can be done anywhere. I wish I had as many good ideas at my desk as I do whilst driving. 

9. Do you commute? Thinking time. Do you work out? Thinking time. See number 8.

10. Put aside a short time every day. Start with fifteen minutes. After a while, it will become an essential routine. Dude, if you’ve never written much in one sitting or you don’t even have a story in mind yet – start with five minutes. One day you’ll find yourself going over and eventually you’ll find yourself becoming the grumpy bastard that is an interrupted writer on a roll. 


Thinking about #NaNoWriMo ? 5 Tips

National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known internationally as NaNoWriMo, is coming. Much like winter only with less Snow. Consider this a beginners guide.

  1. Give it a try! Most people don’t finish. Oh, I hear the grumblers among you asking, “why bother then?” Because it can be the start of something. If you succeed in writing even a little each day in the month you’re far more likely to continue and you’re building an excellent habit that virtually every author (and quite a few tweeps who are vets) recommends – write every day.
  2. Following on from that, update your count. You’d be amazed how happy it can make you to watch the ticker rise. Ignore the bit that tells you how much you’ll need to write every day to get to target, that’s just mean 😉
  3. Join your local support group via the nanowrimo page (probably in a fb group). Writing can be lonely. These groups are a place you will find encouragement. I promise. I’ve never had anyone say a bad word to me. Unlike certain other social media spots!
  4. You need to decide now whether (for this project) you’re a planner or a panters. Both are acceptable. If you’re going to plan, starting that as soon as possible is recommended. Here’s a plot map or, in this case, beat sheet that I like (and about a zillion people use). If you are going to fly by the seat of your beautiful authorly trousers – no excuse really but to get to it.
  5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help: they’ve got their own YouTube channel with videos, reach out on that community board I suggested you join, ask on twitter with the #NaNoWriMo2016 tag, or tweet me as I’d honestly rather cheer on others than face my own WIP. In all seriousness, there’s a great community around this weirdly named object of self-torture. Dive in!

Advice to New Writers

Author Joanne Harris, via twitter, had a great theme for her #tenthings today. She does these regularly and I highly recommend them. Some people aren’t au fait with twitter and Harris herself doesn’t nest her tweets on purpose she says. I’ve taken the liberty to put her tips together here in one spot for reference. There’s a common theme to this list. If it sounds fishy or too good to be true – it is! Run away, run away fast, you coconuts clattering before you.

Joanne Harris’ Ten Things for New Writers to Avoid (annotated by me)

1. Dodgy editorial services. Freelance editors are not all equal. Check their credentials and their claims.

This is very important. For every legit person (see me:) advertising they’re editing services, there are sadly a dozen more who have no business in the business. Ask for references, ask for a sample, ask if they’re a member of a guild or society or employed by a publisher or agency, and never pay for work that isn’t complete or completed to the standard agreed upon. That last bit – be sure you know what you’re getting and that the editor you choose knows what you expect.

2. People who charge for reviews. Not all reviewers are equal, either. No-one believes a paid-for review.

3. People who try to charge authors to adapt their books for the screen. That’s NOT how adaptations work.

4. Dodgy “marketing packages”. There are lots of these about. Make sure you know what you’re paying for.

5. Dodgy online writing courses that guarantee publication. (No-one honest can *guarantee* you anything.)

For 5 and 6 note that no one can guarantee you publication and no one can make you rich with your self published book via their social media marketing scheme.

6. “Agents” who charge their authors reading or copying fees, postage, etc. (They’re not really agents.)

7. (a) Contracts that give universal rights to a single publisher.
7 (b). If you don’t have an agent who can help, run your contract past the before you sign.

The Society of Authors and Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators – these are advocacy groups for authors not just for wine and cheese meetups.

8. Publishers who rely on “gentlemen’s agreements” rather than contracts. Most of these are NOT gentlemen.

Never ever agree to do anything or move forward with a project if you don’t have signed contracts. Meet, chat, lunch, exchange emails, sign an NDA, provide short samples, etc. But be absolutely certain your work and the rights to those hard won words stay in your lovely paws.

9. Literary festivals who expect you to pay them, and not the other way around.

10. Bloggers who expect you to pay them for interviewing you. These are NOT the bloggers you’re looking for.

There are a literally a million bloggers. Vet any blogger who comes to you about your work. Look for bloggers yourself! Ones you like and share common literary joy.

Submitting to Agents

Ah, to be querying! It sounds so cool. so erudite. But if you’ve done it, you know it is also completely nerve wracking. Every notification brings a pin prick of disappointment. Your logical brain knows it is impossible that an agent would respond so quickly. But the 13-year-old in your head is so hopeful and full of rainbows that you think it is absolutely within the realm of possibility that someone read your query, your stilted synopsis of doom, and those opening pages or chapters and thought, “I must have this now!!”Because that naïve teenage you is correct actually. That happens. But it almost never happens within a few days or weeks of submission.

I once attend a panel of agents and someone asked about how many queries they get a day. The three agents giggled nervously. At first I wasn’t sure why. Would it be a popularity contest? Then I realized that the truth was they didn’t want to make the hopeful authors in the room cry. One agent said, “It varies. Some days just a handful, but some days I get over a hundred.” Now I’m not good at math, but those of us in the room who took a moment to think about that statement logically all blanched. Let’s say I’m an early bird, I make my submission of the third day of the month, maybe I’ll be their fiftieth or two hundredth sub of the month.

Truthfully, there is an ongoing deluge of query letters and submissions to virtually every agent at the well known agencies. A smaller agency, surely must get less. Maybe that’s really the way to go for those of us striving to be debut authors. We can always change later? (people do, even the British) So I asked an indie agent. The answer was only slightly lower.

If the idea of those odds puts you off – sorry, but you’re unlikely to ever be published. Becoming a published author is not magic. JK did not stumble upon her deal. Sometimes an author gets an agent off a competition entry, which honestly sounds like the way forward because at least there’s a long list and a short list you might make, but there’s no guarantee that agent will be a good fit or will be able to sell your book. I know two very good writers with agents who’ve gotten nowhere with their novels.

It’s a long, long road. And you have to keep going. You have to be willing to keep throwing your best shit at the wall until it sticks somewhere with someone. Submit and do it again. Get on some lists with a well crafted short story and keep going because then you have to write another one so you can get on some more lists. Submit your novel to as many competitions as you can afford. Keep swimming. Keep writing. Keep submitting. Your feet and your fingers will get bloody. Because that’s what it takes for most people. Go look around your local bookshop (ignore the celeb books) and see each one anew. Each of those books was a battle to get up on that shelf. A slog. It was boring as hell quite often. It takes the time it takes and it will almost always be far, far longer than you’d like.

I’m not trying to be a downer! The glorious upside is you’re not alone. You are not alone in the hard, slow march. Once you find an agent, you’re even less alone. Then an editor and therein, hopefully, a co-conspirator. Company galore. Chin up. Eyes forward. Let’s go!


It’s that time again and #pitmad is upon us. Actually it is nearly over. Were you favored with a thrilling notification? Are you freaking out? Don’t lose your mind and don’t count your chickens. This is just one step in many – but you knew that.

One, be sure the person who favorited your tweet is not only legitimate and but also someone you’d want to work with very closely. The agent-writer relationship is not to be taken lightly. I know people who took their first offer and lived to regret it. You’re hungry. That’s good. But if your 140 character pitch was enough to get the attention of one agent, then your actual submission to an agent you’ve research and feel good about will be too. Check their profile, google and read interviews they’ve given. If they sound like someone you’d never invite for a drink – maybe skip it. Or submit anyway and be able to say you’ve turned down an agent who just wasn’t right for you.

Two, ok, go on. Celebrate a little. However you choose to, but absolutely pat yourself on the back! Well done.

Three, check out what they want and read carefully. 15 pages? 50? 10,000 words?

Even with the intro of #pitmad at the door, you’re query letter still needs to be on point. Worry less about your synopsis, if they even want one yet. No one has ever written a good synopsis. Ever. Cover the basics, no surprises, and in all things be yourself.

If you’re still in a panic and/or unsure if what you’ve got is really going to finish the job and get you singed with the agent of your dreams there a few things you can do (give me a second). What you don’t want to do is read over your words and obsess and edit the life right out of it because you’re terrified.

What you can do is trade, share, find a beta reader, hire a editor, ask that favorite old professor, call up your old English teacher aunt Dotty, or find a reading group to help you. And I’m not just saying that because I’m one of those people. It works. I promise. What does not work is pretending you’re an island of perfection and the first writer in human history to do everything perfectly in isolation. Do us all a favor and find a collaborator so that amazing story you’re percolating can come out and greet the rest of us!


Writers are Weird

Listen, I mean that with true, total love and affection.

Sometimes there’s a lot of what I call “shelf measuring” wherein writers do a couple of different things depending on their persuasion. A writer who is a total book nerd will try to find out if you are a book nerd too. Do you go to second hand shops and look for copies of books you already own but with strange, one-off covers? Have you run out of room in your house for all your books? A writer who considers anyone less “literary” than themselves not worth their time will attempt to suss out your feelings on Gogol because Tolstoy is too mainstream. These are basically hipster writers who in addition to their snobbery over the classics hoard their new writer finds. Writers who are more academic will talk ask about your influences and offer you a copy of a book about writing by a professor type because you need anchoring in structured practice. There are the writers who love words; they know a lot of wonderful quotes, work tirelessly on phrasing, and want to know if you’ve read any great wordsmith’s they’ve yet to discover. Many writers have a favorite genre or time period of writing that they get a bit of tunnel vision about. They’ll tell you lovingly about the depth of X during the Y or describe a genre in such a way to make it all encompassing of the human experience, with or without unicorns. There are the fan writers who have a favorite book they just have to tell everyone changed their life and is the reason they decided to become a writer and they’re dying to know if you’ve read it. Note if you have, purchase a pot of tea, not just a cup…and a piece of cake so you can chew thoughtfully.

We also all get writer’s block. Some people say they never get this. They are lying. It may not feel like a block to them because they’ve got a plot map or they’re taking time off to look back at things afresh or they’re just too busy to write for a little while. In my book, those are all blocks. My kids are walking, talking writing blocks because they often physically bar me from the page. Recently, I saw a quote that I am not going to bother googling (you do that, I wrote this, it took time) that basically said writers are people who have a harder time writing than normal people. I’d put money on that idea meaning slightly different things to every writer. To me, it means that I care too much about my writing. I want it to be good the first time. Really good. I don’t want to go back and make it better (yes, i live in the place with the unicorns). To another writer it may be that finishing an idea, an arc is hard because our plots can’t just be regular old character meets problem finds resolution. Some writers want to weave a plot, throw you a curve ball, toss in some revelatory knowledge via the subtext of that chic-lit.

Then there’s the complaining. Oh my. We love it. About how hard it is. About editing. About finding this and making that and sending and submitting. Up. Hill. Both ways. Kvetching. But at least we do it together. It’s good. How could we deal with all the rejection otherwise?

Some of us…ok, all of us, are competitive, though to drastically different degrees. You want to be happy for your friend that just got an agent, a deal, a publishing date, the best-seller list. And you are Happy. But you’re also jealous. When your profession requires soul baring, when your daily writing life is spent trying to create some kind of art via scratching marks on a page, it is hard to feel like “no one” is ever going to see it or appreciate it. There are naturally more competitive and petty writers out there, but that’s true of humanity. Mostly there are good folks.

Procrastinating might be a thing too, but I wouldn’t know.

author and screenwriter