Sunday, May 31, 2009

Publishing Success: Do you need to go down the university route?

One of the first things that writer, Della Galton, says in her book 'How to Write and Sell Short Stories' is 'Don't let anyone tell you that you need a university education to be a successful writer'. [This is an excellent book by the way, I highly recommend it.] Not that there's anything wrong in obtaining a university education, far from it. I was so proud of my daughter when she got a 2:1 in psychology last year and I watched her graduate.

I think I know what Della means though.

Last year I took a course with the Open University on Literature and Creative Writing, something I have wanted to do for ages. I think there is part of me that yearns to get a degree. A kind of 'Educating Nettie' if you like.

Yet, while I felt the course was quite good, I think it could also put people off writing.

Why? You might ask.

Because I feel it boxes people in. It puts limits on their writing. For example, some students were told they needed 80% and above for their work to be of publishable quality. I disagree. Although I have passed my assignments, mostly in the 70 - 75% bracket, I never once achieved an 80% score. Well not yet. Although I have to wait for my ECA score to be marked which is worth 50% of the course marks. So, I haven't achieved those marks [as yet] but I am already published.

I wasn't happy with the way my tutor marked some of my assignments in any case. For my first assignment she gave me a 0% for my free write because I'd used punctuation. I free write all the time, but I'm so used to doing it that I automatically use punctuation. Some other students on the course had also done the same thing but their tutors didn't mark them down for it. So as a result, for one assignment, I immediately lost 20 % of the marks. I should have challenged it at the time of course. Too late now, it's sour grapes.

To get back to that 80% required for publication...I believe it's far more important for a writer to read guidelines, target the right market, then write an engaging piece that's so polished it positively sparkles on the editor's desk.

From reading some of the other students' comments, although they have done fairly well, it sounds as though they are still doubting they can be published. I am so glad I didn't take this course ten years ago when I first started seeking publication. I took a short course back then that was run by the university at my local library. I learned so much from other students there.

Next I joined a Yahoo group called Momwriters. It still exists today. As the group name suggests it's a group of mothers who write [although fathers are allowed to join as well.] Finding that group was like discovering a precious gem. Some were editors, others experienced writers who wrote for magazines or had books published. One was the ex-comedy editor of Playboy Magazine and the writer of the movie Blue Streak. I learned so much being a member of that group. If I wanted to write a magazine article there was always someone to interview about something or other. Whether it was an article about extended breast feeding or how to cope with your pets on holiday. There was someone who could give me valuable advice or a read through.

Back then, I didn't see any obstacles. There was only the blank page, my creativity and my persistence to get published. It finally paid off as I got pieces published online, in magazines and eventually of course, the novels.

I also took some writing courses with people who were experts in their own particular fields. Like Marcia Yudkin who ran a Break into Magazines Course. Marcia is published in The New York Times and Cosmo. I also took an online course with Leigh Michaels, a Mills and Boon author, at what was then called 'The Barnes and Noble University'. The course was excellent, I learned so much and it didn't cost me a penny.

But what if I had taken that OU course before getting published? Then I think I would have set myself limits and doubted my skill as a writer. I truly believe it might have put me off. Don't get me wrong, of course I have learned things from the course. There's always something new to learn as a writer.

I met one of the contributors to the course book at a writing workshop some years ago. He was getting paid handsomely for supposedly teaching us about 'Internet Publishing'. The man didn't have a clue. He thought everyone who was published online got paid-per-click. He looked astonished when I told him I received a monthly cheque for my writing column. He gave a lot of misinformation to people during the workshop that I had to correct him on.

After saying all of this, I will carry on with my OU course. I want to achieve the Diploma in Literature and Creative Writing. I want to take the advanced course because it includes scriptwriting. I doubt very much if that module will be taught by a scriptwriter though. Maybe I need to write that script for Doctors before I move on to the advanced course, so I don't place any limitations on myself by being told I need 80% or above in my assignments to achieve publishing success.

Maybe I want to carry on to prove I have the ability to be an academic, but at least I realise when it comes to writing, I learned more from the 'School of Life' than a university.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sending my brain on vacation

I've been feeling a little overwhelmed of late. This might be because I am doing too much, mentally. As well having as several writing projects on the go and just completing my course work for my Open University course, I also have work which takes a lot of my mental energy, so I feel a little overloaded.

I know it's time to slow down because I am becoming forgetful. For instance I went upstairs this morning [twice] to get a bar of soap for the kitchen and returned on both occasions without it.

It was while I was feeling flustered cooking Sunday lunch for six that I noticed I hadn't put the broccoli on to boil. I heard a little voice inside my head. No, it wasn't that kind of a voice. It was my inner voice. It said, quite clearly: "Send your brain on vacation." So, that's what I intend to do. No more writing for a week. I am also going to try to keep off the Internet [easier said than done].

I am going to let my tired brain rest for a while.

And while it's soaking up the sun in the Bahamas, my body will carry on.

I'll let you know if it works.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Why I write

If I asked you, why do you write? How would you reply?

Maybe you'd say something like one of the following:

"I've been writing since I was a child..."

"It's a form of escapism for me."

"It's my passion."

"It makes me feel complete."

"I get a kick out of creating something from a blank page."

Maybe you agree with all of the above, or maybe you have something completely different to say about the subject.

All I can do, as I can't second guess, is tell you why I write. Yes, like one of the above comments, I have written since I was a child. I wrote stories in school and sometimes the class teacher read them out. I made my own magazines. I sat all my dolls and teddies in a semi circle and became the teacher who gave them homework. Of course, I had to give them a hand, so there was even more writing to do.

I kept diaries until I was in my twenties.

I did all of that and then for many years I put my writing aside as life took over.

I then began writing short pieces when I had my first child and again when I had depression during and after the birth of my second child. During the dark days, when it was an effort to make a cup of tea, wash dishes, and do general household tasks, as well as look after two young children, I could still pick up a pen and write.

I wrote poems about the mood I was in. I wrote essays about how I was feeling. I'm sure this helped me through the depression and I was fortunate to come off my antidepressants within four months. What was happening without me realising it, was that I was writing for therapy.

As many of you know, I am a huge advocate of this and I've had experience of running an online group and two groups which are currently still meeting at the cancer centre where I work as a counsellor.

I've had some publishing success over the years, but it wasn't handed to me on a plate. I've had my fair share of rejections, but I don't give up when I have one, in a strange sort of way it spurs me on.

The real reason I write though is because I have to. To me, writing is as essential as breathing and if I gave it up, I would die, metaphorically speaking of course. I write for therapy. I write for enjoyment. Sometimes I write for payment. Most of all, I write because I am passionate about it.

So, why do you write?

I'd love to know.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I'm so glad I have a great publisher

A Publisher Worth its Weight in Gold

Nothing is too much for one of my publishers, The Wild Rose Press. If I have a query about something they get back to me within days or even hours of my query. They are a joy to work with and I am proud to be known as one of their authors.

This is a far cry from the first publisher I got published with [who shall remain anonymous]. It was hard to get a reply to any of my queries there. Once, I had concerns about something serious and contacted three members of staff. Not one of them replied. Another time, books I ordered for a charity book launch failed to arrive after six weeks and they seemed unconcerned. They even spelled my name wrong. It was correct on the cover but not at the top of each page of the book, despite me mentioning to them six times they got it wrong on their website.

I'm glad though that this was my first publisher and although it took some of the shine off my experience of publication, I learned some valuable lessons.

I managed to pull both my books from them and went on to get them republished with The Wild Rose Press as well as two new ones there. My editors have been lovely to work with, allowing me to keep to British spellings and sayings. This is important to me as I don't want to Americanise my books. No offence to any Americans out there, but I believe a writer should keep true to themselves. If I buy a book by a foreign author then I want it to reflect the ethos of that particular country.

So, my advice when looking for a publisher, especially if it is your first time is to check out what other authors are saying about them. Are the lines of communication good? Do they care about their writers? Don't be afraid to ask around, it could save you a lot of hassle and heartache.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Just write the book

A new writer can worry so much about the technique of writing that they don't actually get much writing done.

Concerns such as: How should I begin my novel? How many words should a chapter be? Do I need to make charts beforehand? Should I outline? Are common questions not just to self but to other writers and tutors.

My main advice about this is if you worry too much about technique it might sap your creative energy.

When I first started off trying to write a novel around ten years ago I had similar questions, but realised one day, it was time to just get on with writing. I already had a plot in mind: a teenager who goes missing after chatting with someone on the Internet. My main character was a detective called, Declan McKeague. A large Irishman, who bungled things up, but was a lovable character.

Initially, I wrote a chapter or two and read them out at the writing group I attended at the local library. They went down quite well, so I wrote more chapters but run out of steam and put that project aside. I never finished the book but I completed 8 chapters of it.

What I had done though in the process was learn a lot about novel writing. How to maintain pace, how to create suspense, craft a scene, etc.

I wrote three trial run novels that way, and to be honest, when I look back on them now, I can see how much my writing has improved! What I'd done without realising it was to give myself a masterclass in novel writing and all for free!

Sure, I read books about the topic but I threw myself in the deep at the same time. That's why I believe that Nanowrimo , National Novel Writing month, is a great thing for new writers. They are forced to turn off their internal editor and get into the process of novel writing to create a draft of 50,000 words within the month of November. Of course, you could do this yourself during any given month, but taking part in the challenge with other writers can help to motivate and inspire you to get that draft down.

Reading books about novel writing and taking courses is a good thing: learning from people who have already achieved their ambition, but there is nothing like getting your toes wet and having a crack at it for yourself. Don't fear failure. Rejection happens to everyone, even the big names out there. Most authors were once in the same position and have probably got drawers full of dusty, flawed manuscripts before going on to get published.

As Nike says:

Just do it!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

A Five Star Review: How to Write and Sell Short Stories

I love Della Galton's book, "How to Write and Sell Short Stories"

So far at it has received five star reviews which I totally agree with.

Della writes for many of the well known women's magazines such as:

My Weekly, People's Friend, Take a Break, Candis, Woman's Weekly etc.

So you know when you read this book, she is someone who knows what she is talking about. She shares her tips with her readers as well as sharing some of the mistakes she has made.

The book is an easy read that you can dip in an out of. I also like the fact she has included tips from other well known magazine writers.

Another bonus is that if you order the book from the above link now, you will get a reduction of £3.00 off the recommended retail price.

The book is worth its weight in gold.

Five Stars: * * * * *

Thursday, May 07, 2009

The best part about novel writing

For me the best part about novel writing is the first draft when my ideas are not fully formed and I have no idea which way the plot is going. It's a bit like playing a game of blind man's buff or murder in the dark. I don't yet know my way or who the bad guy is.

I like to surprise myself as I go along because I believe if I have no element of surprise then neither will my readers. So it's not unusual for me, not to have worked out until over half way through the book, who the murderer is or what the black moment might be.

As I race towards the finishing line of getting the first draft down I get a rush of adrenaline and when I finally write 'The End' a surge of relief. It's over. At least for now. It's time to allow the casserole to steep in its own juices for a while. So I put the 'baby' to bed.

A couple of weeks later I get the 'baby' out of its cot and it's back to work for revision and edits. This is the worst part of all. I probably end up with three or four drafts. I look for flaws in the plot like loose ends that haven't been tied up. Isn't it awful to read a book where someone is left locked in the loo or you wander what happened to the dog?

I spell check and look for grammar and punctuation errors. I take out extraneous words [as much as possible.] I use 'that' a lot and 'just', the majority of those have to go. There is an easy solution of course, to perform a word search which will highlight any words I wish to delete.

I move paragraphs around.

I try cutting as much as I possibly can. If it's not vital to the plot then it's out! If a character isn't doing anything, then off they go. Sometimes a character can double duty. For example, perhaps the hero can also be the office boss or the heroine's friend her aerobics teacher.

Less is always more.

When all the edits are complete I submit the package which usually consists of the first three chapters, a synopsis and a cover letter. If I'm fortunate that the publisher wants to see the entire novel, then off it goes.

If it's accepted it's back to editing again as per my editor's/publisher's requirements.

This all takes time and to be honest the whole process can take longer than writing the first draft. It is a wonderful feeling though when the galleys go off for the last time and I'm at that moment of waiting to give birth.

I always enjoy discussing the cover art. I have been fortunate so far that my publishers have allowed me to have a say in this. I tell them my vision for the cover and they come back with a picture, sometimes it needs tweaking but more often than not it's just what I wanted.

Edits are a good thing though. My Samhain editor ended up getting me to cut 4000 words of text! But I have to say that it made my writing tighter and the book was a much better read because of it.

So far I have given birth to 'four babies'. It's time to get broody again....

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Seven Ways to Keep the Editor Happy

1. Know his name

This might seem obvious – but if you are able, find out the editor’s name before you query or submit your article or story. You can find out the editor’s name by looking at the first few pages of a magazine where it lists the staff, or on the ‘contact us’ link of their website. Do not address him or her by his or her first name initially. It’s a no, no. Address them either as Mr. Ms. Miss or Mrs. If they get back to you and answer just using their Christian name, then it should be fine to use for future correspondence. Keep your contact formal unless you discover otherwise.

2. Read author guidelines

It’s surprising how many newbie authors don’t take time to read the submission guidelines for a magazine or website. It can save a lot of time and trouble. If a magazine asks for articles of no more than 1000 words using a ‘how to’ style, they are going to be seriously ticked off if you submit something that’s 2 ½ K and in first person!

3. Know your target audience

It’s no use submitting an article about teenage troubles to a magazine read by the elderly. Study the magazine beforehand from cover to cover. A good clue to the intended readership of a magazine is the adverts it runs. If you see lots of ads for stairlifts, incontinence pads and magnifying specs, then it’s obviously not for spotty teenagers, whether this particular readership are young at heart or not.

4. Get Image Requirements right

Some magazine editors have a bee in their bonnet about receiving digital photographs with the right dpi. DPI stands for [dots per inch]. In fact, the dpi has nothing to do with the quality of the photograph submitted. You might send in a JPEG with a dpi of 72 and your editor may claim this is not suitable for the quality of print for the magazine. He wants you to send a picture in of a 300 dpi [this seems to be the standard asked for]. So what do you do? Well, rather than arguing with him, you can download Irfan View. This will enable you to open your picture up and change the dpi to 300 by selecting image, resize/resample option and changing to the dpi to 300, then saving a copy. Easy Peasy! Your 72dpi image is now saved as a 300dpi image

5. Be flexible

If you get a bite from an editor, whatever you do, don’t go away and nurse your swollen fingers! If he shows interest in your article but asks you to add, cut or rewrite in a particular fashion, then go ahead, be flexible and show him what you’re made of as a writer. Too many writers give up when their work doesn’t immediately get accepted for publication. Be professional and be thankful he has shown an interest in your work at all. Do not throw you teddy out of the pram. Instead, evaluate his thoughts and learn from them.

6. Deliver on time

Okay, so the editor has shown an interest in your article. He wants you to add another 500 words. He would like the article in within a couple of days. It shouldn’t take you that long to come up with 500 words but you’ve procrastinated and now the deadline fast approaches. If you don’t think you can deliver on time, it’s better to say so. And even better not to have procrastinated in the first place. If he wants you to deliver -- then do it. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time in this profession.

7. Do not send him a barrage of e-mails complaining

So, he’s rejected your article. Get over it. As writers we all suffer from rejection at some point. The clever writers realise each rejection is a stepping stone on to better things. If it comforts you, go and eat some chocolate or curl up in the corner, or better still, eat a lot of chocolate while curled up in the corner! Shed a tear if you must, but then dust yourself down. Whatever you do don’t send him a barrage of e-mails whinging about his rejection. If you feel you must ask why you were rejected, go ahead. He might tell you if he has the time. And if he does, pay attention, he’s not an editor for nothing. Rewrite, resend somewhere else and wait. And one day that rejection will become an acceptance if you’re persistent enough. Persistence pays off in the end -- big time.

Monday, May 04, 2009

A Crash Course in Short Story Writing

I was inspired to publish this here today after sending someone an e-mail about short story writing.

The main points I've learned over the years are:

* Give your main character [protagonist] a problem that needs sorting out

This doesn't have to be something huge like a fire or a flood, it might be something like a newly married woman who wonders how she will cope when her mother-in-law comes for Christmas dinner.

* Go immediately into where the action takes place

If your story involves the bank getting robbed for instance, then there's no need to start it where the main character is pouring milk on his cornflakes. Go straight into where the action takes place where he is queuing up to deposit some money and two masked men with guns burst in.

* Don't have too many main characters

3 or 4 is enough [max] and perhaps a couple of 'walk on parts' of unnamed characters like the postman or taxi driver.

* Ensure there is a definite beginning, middle and a satisfying ending

A story needs structure. Think of a chart when someone's temperature starts off normal, then goes through the roof. That's how your story should be with a climax at the end. Don't let it go on well after the punch line. Leave them wanting more.

* Make Use of Setting

Setting can become one of the characters in its own right. Think about the dark, brooding house in a horror story or a white, sterile, clinical waiting room. Make use of it in your story.

* Allow the main character to have solved his or her problem by the end of the story

The character needs to have learned and or/grown from it as a result. [Character Arc].

* Ensure you are showing more than telling

Ensure you use lively dialogue where the characters exhibit their mannerisms. Also make use of the five senses. However, sometimes a story might have little dialogue because it's more about going into the character's internal thoughts and feelings. This can work out okay if it is well written, but sometimes sounds a bit 'self indulgent'.

* A 'black moment' can work well before the story reaches its climax.

The moment when things seem impossible: there's no solution to the problem, everything is bleak, etc. However, something then happens that turns it all around and brings the story to its final, but satisfying conclusion.

* It's usually best to stick to one point of view.

Most magazines seem to like third person, although I have read some stories in certain mags that accept first person. I recently read a story in Candis where multi viewpoint was used and it worked very well! I have never seen that used in a short story before, but it goes to show if the writing is strong enough then you might get away with breaking a lot of rules!