Category Archive : #WriteMentor Spark

So you’ve written a book, you’ve had beta readers and CPs look at it, you’ve queried it to every last agent in the Writer’s and Artist’s Handbooks, even that one that who’s on a sabbatical to Antarctica, and now you have an agent. (Or maybe you plan to sub to smaller presses yourself). 

Each one of these is a huge milestone and should be celebrated. They show your determination and perseverance in the face of 100s of stinging rejections. That you can get back up again. That you’re in it for the long haul (even if you now feel like a flayed armadillo pegged out in the desert, with a broken leg and the vultures closing in)…

… Now it’s time to go on sub with publishers…

Duh duh duhhhhhh

Typically, you will have an agent and they will manage this process for you. The process will be different for everyone based on a couple of factors:

1 – your relationship with your agent

2 – your genre

Genre differences in MG & YA can alter your sub experience depending on what is already out there. Look at how saturated SFF YA currently is – not that a different genre is an easier ride, but at least you don’t get to feel the eye roll of the editor as the millionth dystopian novel rolls in. And current trends seem to be favouring MG over YA to such an extent that many YA authors have turned to MG or adult. But these things are cyclical, so fellow YA-ers, don’t give up hope!

It’s quite common to have a list of the publishing houses and editors from your agent that you are submitting to in your first round. You can discuss with your agent if you want to see every rejection or just get the highlights every couple of weeks. The choice is yours, how much info you can take and how thick your skin is. I’m a control freak, so I like to see the good the bad and the ugly as it comes in.

The process is very similar to querying agents  – BUT YOU HAVE LESS CONTROL. With agents, you can keep that spreadsheet, tick off the rejections, track them on query tracker, send out those nudges to the big empty internet space. All these things make you feel like you’re in charge of the process. But being on sub to publishers is a bit different; the information is in your agent’s hands. This is one of the reasons it’s important to have the right agent so you can make a game plan together. 

Editors, like agents, can reject within 24 hours or can take up to a year to review. Seriously. Nothing moves any faster. Although publishing houses need writers and books, their priority is to their existing clients, so submissions must be read around their normal working hours. 

The advice is the same as querying agents: settle in, write something new and try and forget about it. (yeah, uh-huh).

When you do get responses, they’ll be contradictory. I’ve seen many where one publishing house didn’t like the voice but loved the plot and another house said the exact opposite. IT’S SUBJECTIVE. That never changes. 

In the States, there seems to be more visibility in the different stages of submission. Once an editor likes it, they have to make the other editors get on board, they have to get the yes from the marketing department. Then they have an acquisitions meeting to decide whether to greenlight an offer. You may be aware of every painful stage and you can be rejected at any one. If the marketing department says they can’t sell it, it will die, no matter how much an editor loves it. Or you might get and R & R.

In the UK, the process seems a little more fluid and you many not hear about the different stages or how far you got. There are stories of a particular editor reaching out to authors to say they loved their book but couldn’t get it past the team. Heart-breaking – and not unusual. 

It may not be your first book that sells to a house, which is why it’s important to keep writing. You probably won’t get the 6-figure deal. But all of these things are possible.

If you decide to veer around the agent route and go for smaller presses, the process can be much quicker. There are many opportunities to sub and lots of pitching parties on Twitter. Their response times are usually much faster and you can get quite detailed feedback on rejections. 

It’s a fraught time, and no matter how much you try to ignore the fact that you’re on sub, you’ll find yourself refreshing that inbox, jumping at the little pings on your laptop, wanting to email your agent every other day. All perfectly normal feelings. And I’m so glad that having just signed with my third agent, I feel I can go to her and have my little meltdowns when I’m back on sub again. 

The fact that it can take so long will stretch the very best of nerves. So, like querying, it’s important to look after your mental health, to connect with other authors at the same stage and cheer each other along, and to keep yourself distracted. 

There is a wonderful Facebook group called On Submission for authors at exactly this stage and shows the uniqueness of everyone’s journey. Everyone is supportive and it can really help with the process.

https://www.facebook.com/groups/320597638315230/

So, in conclusion, being on submission isn’t the end of the journey, hell, it’s probably nearer the beginning, but you’re here, and that needs to be celebrated: you did something good that many people now see the value in. Hold your chin high, stick that smile on your face, and believe that it’s going to happen. It will, if you keep going. Persevere. And remember, everyone’s journey is different.

Further Reading:

Marisa Noelle always has a story or two screaming to get out, but it wasn’t until she completed a few courses, including the acclaimed Curtis Brown Writing for Children, that she nabbed an agent here or there and her books began to get noticed. 

Her debut, a YA sci-fi, comes out with WritePlan publishing late next summer. She has been long and short listed in a handful of competitions and was proud to be part of the UK WriteMentor program in its inception year. 

She lives in the UK with her husband and three sons.

The Age of the Age Range

Young Middle Grade, early readers, chapter books? On the 5-7 shelf in WHSmiths, or the 6-8 shelf at Barnes and Noble? Where do they fit, and who are they for? Well, according to Caroline Abbey, senior editor at Random House: ‘Chapter books are … where a love of independent reading is born’. So wherever you decide to put them, they’re important. I’m going to stick with the term YMG and avoid assigning an age range at all – these versatile little books are for everyone, and have broad appeal:

  • They make great ‘grown-up’ bed-time reading for young children (it’s next-level stuff, to pop a bookmark in and know that more is coming the following night.)
  • They transition children smoothly from the cocoon of school levelled-reading to the glamourous world of true MG, where many an over-enthusiastic reader has floundered trying to read too much, too soon.
  • And once a child becomes a confident reader, YMG can provide a break from the drama and complexity of a 300+ page novel, a safe place to return to – what adults might call a guilty pleasure, but without the guilt.
  • (also, adults love them too – I often pick up a Dahl, Dick King-Smith or Chris Riddell)

Easy Reading, Easy Writing?   

In many professionals’ opinion, YMG is the hardest category to write for, ‘…you are writing for kids who are just learning to read on their own [and] it’s incredibly important to create a book that will encourage them,’ says Abrams editor, Erica Finkel (https://twitter.com/ericafinkel?lang=en)

It’s a tough balancing act– to write using a simpler narrative suitable for an emerging reader, whilst carrying three dimensional characters, convincing dialogue and a sophisticated and captivating plot. As we’ve seen, they need a wide appeal, while holding true to the core reader, and it can be all too easy to slip into the more complicated prose style of older MG.

Tips of the Trade – Some advice I’ve gathered while writing YMG

  • Focus on action and dialogue– these are the doors into your character for young readers who aren’t yet proficient in subtler indicators, like body language and emotion
  • But, go easy on the dialogue! Too much will slow the pace, and paceis everything. Use dialogue tags so it’s clear who’s talking (don’t be shy of ‘he said, she said, they said’) 
  • Limit your number of characters and (like any book) they must be well rounded and believable
  • plots are generallylinearfor simplicity, with no, or few subplots
  • YMG will usually be illustrated at some level. Consider the visuals – what will make great line drawings?
  • Your words need to work hard, while remaining simple and concise – be mindful of word choice, but don’t talk down
  • Limit description. Younger children will fill in the gaps in with their imaginationand description can, again, slow the pace. Young children are more likely to put a book down and do something else if they are not fully engaged.
  • Keep in mind your audience. YMG is designed to be read by children and adults to children
  • Voiceis (as always), key. YMG books may be read aloud, so can’t sound boring.
  • YMG can tackle important themes, but make sure these are age appropriate, such as fitting in, making friends, dealing with change, growing up, conquering fear, accepting ‘otherness’. Never preach or be didactic
  • Think about series potential and competition from series books
  • There is a debate surrounding bleak and ‘realist’ endings in kidlit, particularly YA. But for YMG it is important to have a satisfying resolution, a happy ending and a sense of hope and optimism

Skinny Spines and Series’

But it is worth it? YMG has a reputation as being a hard sell – they don’t stand out on the bookshelf, they’re drowned out by series’ and the quantity of illustration raises publisher costs.

Young Middle Grade is on the rise. MG continues to dominate the book fairs (at time of publishing), especially humorous, and there’s no age group that likes funny fiction more than the young reader. If you are drawn to write for this age group don’t be put off. It IS hard, and you WILL need to stand out, but isn’t that true of any good writing? And if you crack it you will have found your way into the hearts of young readers when they need you the most.

*‘Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth.” – E.B.White

Links: 

https://www.independent.co.uk/extras/indybest/kids/best-books-for-4-to-7-year-olds-a7358921.html

http://madeleinemilburn.co.uk/writing-middle-grade-fiction/

http://lighthouseliterary.co.uk/blog/2015-11-15-how-many-words-are-in-a-childrens-book

Emma Read is the author of Middle Grade debut, Milton the Mighty – shortlisted for the Bath Children’s Novel Award, published by Chicken House in 2019. The sequel will be out in spring 2020. She is a mentor with WriteMentor Sparks and runs creative writing workshops for children in KS2.

There’s never enough time. This seems to be a universal truth, whether you work for a living, attend school full-time, or are a primary caregiver to a child or family member. All of your responsibilities may leave you wondering how you can possibly complete your novel

And yet, there’s also no shortage of stories about writers getting published despite hectic schedules. Stephen King is a great example. He moonlighted as a janitor and gas pump attendant for years to make ends meet, on top of teaching high school English, writing in what little time he had left after work and parenting responsibilities.

So, how do you make time to write? I’m afraid I don’t have the be-all, end-all answer to this question, but I will tell you what worked for me.

Identifying My Blocks

I’ve been writing fiction for over a decade, but it’s always been a secondary pursuit after my full-time job (usually other obligations, too). Even when I had free time, I’d find excuses not to write: the house was too messy, I was tired from a long work-week, I hadn’t been to the gym in a while and what better time to exercise than now?

I built up this idea that writing had to happen when I was feeling inspired, on a perfectly tidy desk, with zero distractions. If I had so much as a bill that was due within the next week, I’d shift gears and it’d derail my writing plans entirely.

My reluctance to sit down and write may have also stemmed from a secondary, more internal source: I didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing. Countless times, I’d come up with what felt like a great idea for a story, but I could never get past the initial pages, or I’d draft like the wind, only to get stuck a couple chapters in. Once I learned that I write best with an outline, that changed a lot for me. It eliminated one of the obstacles that kept me from progressing.

Time was another factor. I worked a more than full-time job on top of being a very active member of my figure skating club. This didn’t leave me a whole lot of time to write.

Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is

Last year, a new story idea formed. This isn’t unusual; I get ideas all the time. What was different this time was that I decided to take an online craft class to develop it further. I had to earmark some of my own hard-earned money to take this class. Despite my hectic schedule, I was determined to make it worth my while.

(N.B. I am definitely not saying you have to spend money to write effectively, just that the cost was a motivator for me to ensure I completed the work and learned something—which in turn led me to develop a better writing process. This is something you can absolutely learn on your own!)

Enter: 5a.m. wake-up calls each weekday. I’d also writing over my lunch break and declined invites to go out with friends so I had more writing time. Looking back, I didn’t set out to stick to a strict schedule but that’s what happened, and it kept me on track with my class assignments. By the end of the course, I had a loose outline and about 10 pages of my story written.

That could have been the end of it, but the class had a WIP pitch contest associated with it. Much like Twitter’s PitMad event, students could submit a 1-3 line novel pitch. A handful of agents and editors would review them, then request more materials, if desired.

I sent in my pitch and assumed that would be it. You can probably guess what happened next. Two weeks later, I was notified I had interest. Could I please send along my query letter, a one-page synopsis, and my first 10-25 pages?

Identifying What Drives Me

I’ll cop to the fact that I hadn’t written a single word in the weeks between the end of class and when I got my first request. I also didn’t have a solid sense of what a query letter was. Knowing it was probably best not to wait months after the requests before sending anything in, I gave myself a self-imposed deadline of 10 days to submit my materials, then got to work filling the gaps in my knowledge. Welcome back, 5a.m. wake-up calls.

I met my deadline, then lapsed with writing again. A few weeks later, the agent emailed me back. She loved my opening pages and wondered when my full manuscript might be ready to send her. A week later, an editor sent a similar message.

It was at this point that I knew my on-again, off-again writing schedule wasn’t going to cut it. This was an incredible opportunity, one that I didn’t want to let slip by. That’s when I realized something about myself that I could use to my advantage: I will move mountains to ensure I meet deadlines because I don’t like letting people down.

I also get motivated actively tracking my progress:

My outline gave me a rough idea of the number of chapters I’d need to complete in my rough draft. I created a formula in a Google Sheet based on it and filled in a row every time I completed a new chapter.

I can’t say finishing my draft and revising it was simple after coming to this realization, but it did force me to optimize my schedule. Back to 5a.m. writing sessions, but this time I stuck with them. I treated writing like the job I wanted it to become.

In Sum

Defining an effective writing process was only half the battle for me. It wasn’t until I identified what motivated me to write consistently that I started making strides. For me, that involved imposing deadlines because it felt like people were counting on me (whether that was real or perceived is irrelevant since it got me to write regardless!).

If that sounds simple, I promise it wasn’t. There were so many times I questioned what I was doing, and whether I could pull it off. Writing a novel can be an intense experience under the best of circumstances, and frequently isolating, so I sought out other writers online. The #WriteMentor community provided a wonderful support system as I revised all summer. I also met other writers via Twitter and exchanged pages with some of them. These smaller critique deadlines kept me on track and ensured I hit the one that mattered. Once done, I sent the agent and editor the requested full, then began cold querying, right on schedule.

Applying This to Your Own Situation

I truly believe that there’s no one right way to meet your writing goals; what motivated me to stay on task may do nothing for you. However, I do feel it’s important to identify any obstacles that may stand in the way of achieving what you want with your writing. It may be that your current writing process isn’t working or that something in your life needs to take a temporary backseat to give you more time to write.

Whatever the case, take a deep and honest look at what’s currently on your plate. Find what drives you. Make the necessary changes.

Resources

Let’s Get Scientific:

Psychology Today’s Motivation tags

Motivation: Psychological Factors That Guide Behavior

Writing-Focused:

6 Proven Ways to Re-ignite Your Writing Motivation

30 Little Ways to Motivate Yourself to Write, RIGHT NOW

Recommended Reading:

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Video Resources:

Top 10 Tips for Staying Motivated to Write Your Novel

How to Stay Motivated While Writing Your Novel

A.J. Sass

AJ. Sass is a fiction-writing figure skater, inclined toward adventures of a traveling nature. He is autistic, non-binary, and keen on exploring how gender identity and neurodiversity impact character narratives.

A.J. is represented by Jordan Hamessley at New Leaf Literary & Media, Inc. His middle grade debut, ANA ON THE EDGE, will be published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers in Fall 2020. You can add it on Goodreads here.

Let’s face it, some writers don’t write full time.

The common case scenario involves working a fixed hour job, taking care of your home, dropping kids off at school, dealing with bills, trying to do all the extra lifting to get the writing and reading community notice you exist and by the time this is all done, you have only an hour to yourself which you just want to use to rest before doing it all over again. So you are tired and on your fourth cup of coffee and trying to remember what your book was about in the first place or where you left that tiny piece of paper with the scribble that just might be the idea you need to make your book work. And here I am trying to get you to get motivated to write.

But you want to be motivated.

Let’s be honest what writer doesn’t love the moment when the jumbled up crazy ideas and images in their mind come rushing out like a broken damn unto paper, whether of the physical kind or the digital? Or when you reach that daily word count or when you finally get to write ‘the end’ on your manuscript?

You just have to do it.

First things first, you have to make time to write. There are some things in your day you can cancel or postpone or do more efficiently to make the time to write. Even if you can only come up with twenty minutes in a day, it’s how you use it that matters. When you have this, there are steps that could become your routine to help you stay motivated and stay writing.

Focus on why you write:

We all have a reason we started writing in the first place and when the hustle and bustle of life comes our way, we sometimes lose focus of it. Actively remembering our reasons can bring us back to perspective. I find writing it down helps. That way I can always pick up my notebook and read it.

Picture yourself writing:

Sounds funny, I know, but it tends to work more often than you’d think. We know we are writers, we know that’s what we do. We can picture our characters and stories, we can imagine it. That is the essence of our writing spirit yet we fail to apply it when it gets to the time to write. An inspiration to write a story is imagining you write that story. Close your eyes and imagine your fingers moving quickly across your keys, or your hand holding your pen and writing feverishly across your paper. When you open your eyes it is with a clear vision of what you are trying to do and the temptation to mimic what you just pictured. That would get you in the writing spirit.

Just write anything down:

I’ve had the pleasure of conversing with a number of writers and I noticed a common pattern even if it doesn’t apply to all. Writers are perfectionists. No matter how crazy the rest of our lives may seem, when it comes to our book babies, it has to be perfect. This is what we are putting out to the world there’s no room for mistakes. But that’s just not how it works. Writing, much like every other creative venture is subjective. There’s no one size fits all so you can’t start out searching for perfection so just write whatever it is you think of, mistakes and all.

Fuel your creative spirit with books:

You can’t give what you don’t have, so even though it seems like there’s no time, you have to read. It’s your duty as a writer. You can schedule time of day, week of the month or the months in a year to read. You don’t have to fall down the reading rabbit hole, just schedule your reading time and before you know it you have so many ideas and the motivation to write just as good if not better than the writers you’ve read.

Set daily targets:

It can be overwhelming thinking of the grand scheme of things, how many words you have to write, edit, promote, and so much more. So forget about the whole and think of the now. ‘Today I would write 1000 words’. Keep using this mindset everyday and before you know it, a book is in your hands.

Start exercising:

I know, even I don’t like doing it and I was an athlete, but it’s important and very helpful. I find that the days I do exercise are my most productive days. Do simple cardio to get your blood pumping and your creative juices flowing (I’m not talking about the sweat).

Eat a balanced diet:

It’s not always easy but it’s something everyone should do not matter their career path. If you really, truly can’t then at least eat something healthy right before you write. I find that when I eat heavy meals, I’m always sleepy and slow, but when I eat something super light, I burn through it so fast that I have to pause writing half way and go prepare another meal. Both cases distract me from writing.

Switch it up:

Get out and try something new. Inspiration strikes anywhere so go out and find it. As much as books and your imagination can give you inspiration, finding out something new or just being in a different environment can change a lot in the creative game.

Speak with a mentor:

Look to someone who has done it before. It’s easier when you have a mentor who is preferably a writer guide you through their personal experience in writing and give you insight that you might not have from hearing a general view of what it is to look for motivation as a writer. Luckily there are mentors at the WriteMentor Spark programme for that.

Talk with other writers:

Having a community of others who understand and are going through the same journey and problems has been a really great help in my writing career. Sometimes even with no specific direction from them, just hearing their stories or seeing Gifs of encouragement has helped bolster my spirit and motivated me to work harder.

Reward yourself:

When I was a student in a boarding school, we had fixed limited meals and more limited than the meals were the snacks. Sometimes I’d be so tired after school and have an assignment I just had to get done. I started something, when the snacks were given, I’d hold out on eating it until I finished my assignment and then I could indulge in it. I carried this into my adult life and it has played a huge role in getting me to complete my tasks especially my writing. Give yourself rewards, ‘I’ll go out with friends after I’ve reached this amount of words’, ‘I’ll buy myself that bag after I’ve finished my first draft’. Make sure to stick to it, it’s all discipline.

Be held accountable:

This can be verbal or written. You just have to tell someone you respect or value their opinion your goal. “I’m going to finish my book by mid-year.” You’ve said it, it’s out there in the universe and in the mind of that person you respect. Now you know if you don’t live up to this declaration, you are going to be letting someone down. You no more have the luxury of excusing yourself at every turn and pushing your deadline further and further away until you can’t see it anymore.

Same time same place:

While it is true to try something new or go to a new place when you are well and truly stuck, having a fixed routine is the best way to trick and stimulate your brain into behaving a certain way. I can’t stress this enough, constant repetition is key. Every day, you exercise, make a healthy snack, listen to certain music, sit down at a certain place and open your laptop and write. If you do this often enough, anytime you wake up and you don’t feel inspired to write, you can go through this routine and by the time you have your laptop open, your brain is already thinking, ‘it’s time to write’ and all those buried ideas and the motivation just come pouring out.

So there you have it, the routines I use to stay motivated when writing. I won’t say I use them all at the same time, but anytime I apply even just a few of these, I always come out with something good.

Let me know what routines not mentioned here work for you and which ones here you’d like to give a go.

Now for some tough love, watch this video:

Chio Zoe is a Young Adult Fantasy writer. Her debut novel To Cross a Blade amd Dagger placed her as a finalist in the Breakthrough Novel Awards. She is currently working on book 2 scheduled to be released in 2019. Chio studied Architecture and Fashion Design, yet has always loved writing. When she isn’t working on her debut series, she writes short stories on her website (chioojukwu.com).

You dream of becoming a professional writer, but in an industry where hard work goes hand in hand with rejection and there’s little, if any, instant gratification, how can you stay motivated to fulfil your dream?

Where it all started…

I was eleven when I decided I wanted to become a writer. I remember the moment vividly. I’d stayed up late, reading a book I’d fallen in love with and couldn’t put down until I finished (sadly I can’t remember the name of that book). With a torch beneath the bedcovers, as my reading light, that was the moment I knew. I wanted to write something that absorbed someone like this book had me; I wanted to learn how to tell a compelling story. I closed the book, ran my fingers over the turquoise and white glossy cover and imagined my own name on the cover. A dream was born.

Uni years…

Fast forward seven years, my dream still in tact, I started a degree in English and Creative Writing at Warwick University. This was it! I was going to become a writer! As I sat in the huge lecture hall, a fresh notebook with crisp white pages in front of me, I was eager to learn how. But it wasn’t the craft of writing that the lecturer began with: it was the importance of routine and habit. We were to write every day, he said, even if it was for just five minutes. We were to try to write at the same time every day. In the same notebook. Preferably in the same place. We were told to establish routines and rituals around our writing – so that the brain knew what was coming and was less resistant, and that magical state I call ‘the flow’ came sooner. But the truth is, although I understood my lecturer’s point, I didn’t see the value of routine back then. Could it really make that much difference? And it seemed so unromantic! I wanted to write when I felt like it: when I was inspired. But these were vital lessons that would guide me towards success many years later.

A debut is born…

I was sleep-deprived, surrounded by baby toys, nappies and muslin clothes, when I started my novel ‘The Million Pieces of Neena Gill’ (published by Penguin Random House in July 2019). It may seem like a strange time to start a novel – why now, when I clearly had my hands full? Well, I’d had a tough pregnancy and birth and was all too aware that our time is limited. And suddenly the eleven year old in me, dreaming of my name on a book cover, wouldn’t leave me alone. I also had this little being in my arms and as I looked down at him I thought about what I wanted to teach him: to follow your dreams, to beat to your own drum, to always at least try.

Goals and routines…

And so, I finally put everything I’d learned about routine (and craft, of course) over the years into practice. I suspected that if I was going to achieve this with a young – and demanding – child, I needed some structure. Firstly, I set some goals: I would aim for roughly 600-1000 words a day. Then, every day, when my baby slept, I wrote. During his afternoon nap, I wrote. When he went to bed at 8pm, I wrote. Whatever happened – with the house in a mess, with my eyes closing from exhaustion, with my phone ringing – I wrote. And sure enough, it got easier. The more words I saw on the screen, the more motivated I became. As my lecturer had promised, the routine meant that I achieved ‘the flow’ quicker and more often. And soon, that was its own reward, being in that place where words flow and the world slips away – that feeling was more motivating than anything else. 10 months later I had a (very rough) draft of a novel. I’d done it!

Motivation…

Looking back, in the years between writing this novel and my university years, a lot had been going on. I’d been battling some demons when it came to motivation. Fear of rejection. Of not being good enough. Imposter syndrome. By never completing a novel, I couldn’t put it out there, and that meant I could avoid being rejected (but I now see that I was self-rejecting instead). All these things meant I wasn’t fully motivated. But lack of motivation can come in many forms, and can also arise from problems with the work itself. In the ‘Anatomy of Story’ John Truby connects creativity problems to the larger issue of writers block and says “Writers block comes from not understanding the true structure of the story you’re telling… is it hitting the story beats that are unique and right for that story?” More here – highly recommended:

The importance of routine…

But the routine allowed me to overcome the psychological issues of fear – or at least ignore it all while I was working. It also told my brain that I was taking this seriously – and in our busy lives it can be just 10 minutes a day that gives us that message. All I had to do was stick to the routine, to get the words down, and if nothing came of it at least I’d enjoyed the feeling of being in the flow, had deepened my craft, had tried. There’s value in all those things alone. So go, connect with your dreams and get a routine and get writing – imagine your name on the cover of a book. A routine could be just the thing you need!

Recommended reading: The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

Emma is the author of YA novel The Million Pieces of Neena Gill (July 2019, Penguin Random House). She is represented by Jo Unwin.

She has a BA in English and Creative Writing from Warwick University and a Creative Writing MA from Bath Spa University. 

Her short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies such as Mslexia and The Bristol Short Story Prize 2016.

Today’s post was inspired by a workshop I’ve run in schools that links traditional tale plotting to story writing. A common problem in books is a meandering middle. The character has been sent on their adventure to solve their story problem and their problem worsens before it gets better so the tension needs to rise in increments before the climax. I often know the opening and climax to my stories but the rest I discover on the way, and that can lead to a saggy middle where the story meanders off track. And I don’t want my stories to turn out like my cakes.

My editor taught me something very simple, but a revelation:

Most of what happens in the book should be driven by the main characters decisions. 

Seem obvious? Yes, but I’d somehow not thought of it quite that way. Often the middle is where my character is pushed from exciting scene to more exciting scene, with outside actions driving the narrative. The character is serving the story, acting a part in all the cool stuff the author has devised for them, but the story needs to be created by the character. 

Dark forces are in pursuit and closing in? Make sure it’s the actions of your character that have inadvertently made things worse. That way, your character is learning and growing, strengthening for their final showdown.  Rather than being ricocheted around by the force of the story inflicted on them, they drive it. 

Easy to say, but how does it look?

Snuggle up and let me tell you a story. 

Once upon a time, three little pigs are sent off to seek their fortune.This is the set-up, with the foreshadowing of their mother warning them about the big bad wolf. So, they sensibly build houses, to protect against the dark forces, but they make mistakes, which allows for rising tension. It is the pig’s decisionswhich lead to the problems. I hear your argument. It’s the wolf that drives this story – but I disagree.

First and pivotal bad decision the pigs make…they split up rather than living together. I would argue this the big lesson the pigs learn from this story. Sticking together makes you stronger. 

So, making a straw house is a disastrous move – a very overconfident piggy decision – but the pig escaped. Phew. The wooden house should be fine though and now there’s two pigs hiding there, so stakes are rising. 

Whoops. This wolf has got serious lungs and down comes the cabin. The piggy decision to split up, make a house of wood and now to have two pigs hiding there didn’t work out either. These pigs are driving this narrative with their daft decisions and really winding up this wolf into the bargain. Now he’s not just hungry, he’s hangry.

Finally, they have learned enough to make a good decision and are back together at the third pigs brick house. But they’ve really kicked a hornet’s nest with this wolf and all the silly houses and puffing. Can he find a weakness in the brick house? The pigs have finally come to the right decision that they are going to stick together and luckily the third pig is also smart. So, when wolf seems to be coming through the chimney this in your story would be the dark moment. After everything, he’ll have the three pigs trapped in a cage of their own making. But it can’t happen, the three pigs are together now, and of course – wolf ends up in the pot. 

So, the pigs drove this story with their action. It seemed like they were being driven passively by the dark force of the wolf, but they were constantly making decisions, taking action and learning. They had to both earn and own the solution to their problem in order for it to satisfy the reader.

Don’t huff and puff your way through the meandering middle. Make your characters earn it and own it. 

More reading/viewing:

Lindsay Galvin

Lindsay was lucky enough to be raised in a house of stories, music, and love of the sea. She left part of her heart underwater after living and working in Thailand where she spent hundreds of blissful hours scuba diving. Forced now to surface for breath, she lives in sight of the chillier Sussex sea with her husband and two sons. When she is not writing, she can be found reading, swimming or practicing yoga. She has a degree in English Language and Literature, is fascinated by psychology and the natural world, and teaches Science. Lindsay hadn’t written creatively since childhood until the idea for her debut novel The Secret Deep splashed into her mind, and now she’s hooked.

After this week’s fantastic craft chat, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about inciting incidents in my favourite books. It’s usually ‘the’ moment — the one that hooks me into the story, and makes it impossible to stop reading.

Which is no mean feat, because it has a lot to compete with — beginnings of novels have to work so hard.

You’ve set up your book. You have a killer first line. A character with a stonkingly clear desire and a terrible fatal flaw. Your reader is IN. Now you hit them with the conflict — the inciting incident. Your novel’s first big turning point.

From The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

At the end of Chapter One, Starr and Khalil are driving along the road:

‘I roll my eyes. “She got on my nerves with her crush on Seven. Half the time, I thought she came over just to see him.”

“Nah, it was because you had the Harry Potter movies. What we used to call ourselves? The Hood Trio. Tighter than —”

“The inside of Voldemort’s nose. We were so silly for that.”

“I know, right?” he says.

We laugh, but something’s missing from it. Someone’s missing from it. Natasha.

Khalil looks at the road. “Crazy it’s been six years, you know?”

A whoop-whoop sound startles us, and blue lights flash in the rearview mirror.’

This is how the inciting incident from The Hate U Give hits us at the end of Chapter One. The cops pull over the two teenagers. The full inciting incident is revealed in Chapter Two, and it’s the ultimate in conflict. Khalil, an African-American boy in the south of the USA is shot and killed by a white cop. And Starr’s ‘new world order’ begins. Something has happened that is life-changing for Starr, and now she can never go back to a time before it happened. She must learn to embrace her new world.

But what if you’re not writing about something so life-threatening? What if your book is a comedy about a teenage girl who really doesn’t want to be a model, but ends up loving being one anyway?

From Geek Girl by Holly Smale

In the first two very short opening chapters, Harriet is in bed pretending to be sick. Her best friend, Nat, drags her from bed and forces her to admit that she is, in fact, not sick at all:

‘Nat is a bit snappy with me as we run towards the school bus as fast as my legs will carry me.

“You know,” Nat sighs as she waits for me to catch up for the twelfth time. “I watched that stupid documentary on the Russian Revolution for you last week, and it was about four hundred hours long. The least you can do is participate in an Educational Opportunity to See Textiles from an Intimate and Consumer Perspective with me.”

“Shopping,” I puff, holding my sides together so they don’t fall apart. “It’s called shopping.”

“That’s not what’s written on the leaflet. It’s a school trip: there has to be something educational about it.”

“No,” I huff. “There isn’t.” Nat pauses again so that I can try and catch up. “It’s just shopping.”

To be fair, I think I have a point. We’re going to The Clothes Show Live, in Birmingham. So-called — presumably — because they show clothes to you. Live. In Birmingham. And let you buy them. And take them home with you afterwards.

Which is otherwise known as shopping.’

Being dragged to The Clothes Show Live by her best friend is the inciting incident that sees Harriet spotted by a model scout, and her ‘new world order’ begin. Harriet can’t go back to life before she was spotted — she must embrace her new life as someone who is potentially a model. Because at this point, immediately after this inciting incident, Harriet is not suddenly a model.

It is her action in response to the inciting incident that propels her story forwards.

Just as, in The Hate U Give, Starr is not immediately an advocate for Black Lives Matter. It is her action in response to the inciting incident that propels her story forwards.

The conflict comes from what your main character does next. Because the perfect inciting incident is a ‘call to action’ that highlights your main character’s fatal flaw.

Starr doesn’t want to rock her world. She’s already uncomfortably, but fairly happily, straddling two worlds — her black home world in a run-down part of town, and her white school world in an affluent area. If she speaks up against the cop, her entire world will crumble and she will be the centre of everyone’s negative attention. Speaking up could have very real and very dire consequences for Starr.

Harriet is intrigued by the offer, but she doesn’t think she wants to be a model. She doesn’t think she even could be a model, not really. Models are glamourous, and she’s… well, she’s not. She’s bullied at school for being a geek. To comfort herself, she hides from the limelight and recites lists of facts. Plus, her best friend really does want to be a model, but she wasn’t ‘spotted.’ If Harriet opens herself up to this new possibility, she’d have to step into the limelight. The bullying could get worse and her best friend could feel betrayed.

What will Starr do? What will Harriet do?

The important thing the inciting incident does then, is usher in a period of ‘debate’. How does the main character feel about what just happened? And what are they going to do about it?

The debate leads them to action.

And we are hooked.

Could I have stopped reading when I understood Starr’s dilemma? Absolutely not. I had to know what she would do, and how that would work out for her.

And equally I couldn’t stop reading when I knew that Harriet was thinking about turning her back on a whole new life, just because she was afraid to step out of the shadows.

What’s your inciting incident?

Whatever it is, I hope it plunges your main character into turmoil – and has your reader hooked!

Further Reading:

Screenplay by Syd Field – Chapter Eight “Two Incidents”

Story by Robert McKee – Chapter Eight “The Inciting Incident”

Further watching:

Julie Marney Leigh writes contemporary novels for teens about fun, friendship and feminism. She grew up in Lancashire, and now lives in Scotland where she gained a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Edinburgh, and fell in love with the city. 

She lectured in English at the university for many years, as well as being a Director of the Scottish Universities’ International Summer School. More recently, she is an alumna of the Curtis Brown Creative Writing for Children Course with Catherine Johnson. 

She is represented by Hannah Weatherill at Northbank Talent Management. 

Follow @jules_leigh for updates.

Very few of us are fortunate enough to just fall into the grateful hands of an admiring agent, or to land that dream publishing deal, without a bit of self-promotion. In this article I outline two simple things that anyone (even me) can do to improve our chances of these things happening.

Build up your presence

The first is, work on your online presence. Twitter, Instagram, FB and LinkedIn: they have all worked for me. Keep connecting with people and liking their posts and retweeting if they’re on Twitter or reposting on LinkedIn, etc. Not only does this give you a presence and a trail on the web for an interested agent or publisher to follow, it will also make people in the industry well disposed towards you, and that can only help.

When I was seeking agent representation, one question I was frequently asked was how many Twitter followers do you have? This really is worth working on. Agents like to know that you have a bit of a ready-made audience of people who are pre-disposed to be interested in what you write. And, at the risk of teaching your granny to suck eggs (I hope that phrase travels) whatever you post, add a picture/photo/gif to it. Browsers are much more likely to click on a post that features a nice picture. It’s just human nature.

Lovely LinkedIn

I’m going to give a special plug for LinkedIn. It really has proved invaluable in establishing me as a writer, but so many of my fellow scribblers overlook it. I now have nearly 2,500 connections on LinkedIn including agents, publishers, Hollywood animators and fellow writers. It was through LinkedIn that my Dutch publisher, Uitgeverij Holland, found me and contacted me. I now have a three-book deal with them. And very recently, people seeking speakers are conferences and other events are starting to contact me through LinkedIn as well. Don’t underestimate its power and potential. BUT – and this is important – don’t pester your contacts either. You need to entice them with your interesting and relevant posts, rather than chasing them into a corner and haranguing them. Try to post something intriguing a couple of times a week: a shortlisting in a competition, a nice tweet/message from someone who has enjoyed your work, even excitement over the number of words you’ve managed to write that day can work, if you couch your post in a way that piques the reader’s interest.

OK, let’s get on to my second tip.

The Answer is Yes, Now What’s the Question?

Say YES whenever you can. If someone asks you to write an article for free, say YES. Going back to my Dutch publisher, they read an article I’d written for a review website, liked the sound of my books and took the trouble to find me on LinkedIn. The article was a freebie, but it has certainly paid for itself since.

Whether it’s writing an article, speaking at a literary event or publishing conference or something completely off the wall, say YES if it’s legal and safe and even remotely possible. You never know what will come of it and who will read it. I’ve agreed to things that are way outside my comfort zone and I’ve yet to regret doing so. A recent example of this was a US website that asked me for an article on my views on modern anti-Semitism in the UK. To say that I wasn’t an expert on the subject is something of an understatement, but I said YES and did some research and they were delighted with what I wrote and now it’s out there so show that I can be serious, when I have to.

There are even more advantages to saying YES:  you will get a reputation for being helpful and engaged and approachable and dedicated to your art. And at the same time, it will help you to hone your writing skills, too. A win-win situation. Yes? YES!

Further reading on writing for a living and branding:

https://writingcooperative.com/5-easy-ways-to-build-your-writers-personal-brand-b75316a0de8c

Kate Wiseman

Writer of the Gangster School series of MG comedy adventures, currently available in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands. My historical YA, No Man’s Land, is being published in 2020. Currently working on a new series of Historical Mystery stories. Shortlisted for the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing, the Greenhouse Funny Prize and the Winchester Writers’ Prize for Children’s Funny Fiction. I have a first class degree in English and Creative Writing and a Masters in English Literature. Many years experience as an English Tutor. 

Website: http://www.katewiseman.uk 
Twitter handle: @katewiseman
Gangster School website: http://Gangsterschool.com 

When I was writing my first novel, Noah Can’t Even, and spending time and money trying to get it ready to submit to agents, I often wondered if I’d ever really make any money back doing this. Sure, having a book published would be a dream come true, and cause for celebration just in itself – but could I really earn a living from it? The reality is that author income seems to be declining year on year, and (except in the smallest handful of cases) advances are never enough to live on, so it’s important to look at creative ways you can make your writing pay.

1. Start with your book

Earning money from the book(s) you’ve had published is a longer-term strategy – you’ll need to earn out your advance before you see a penny in royalties. However, it makes sense to give some attention to doing whatever you can to help your book sell. Whilst your publisher will (hopefully) have a PR and marketing strategy, there are plenty of things you can do to compliment this. Social media can be a good starting point, and running competitions, giveaways, and generally contributing to the online conversation can raise awareness of you and your book. Contacting events organisers and bookshops can result in signings and panels that can bring your work to a wider audience. Make sure whoever holds the film and TV rights is actively trying to sell them – a TV option probably isn’t as much as you might think it’ll be in most cases (low to mid four figures isn’t unusual) but it’ll either be a nice chunk for you on top of your advance, or go some way to paying the advance off (if your publisher holds the rights). 

2. Think about other books

Chat to your agent and editor – could you write more books for them? If you’ve written YA, could you write MG or a picture book? Whilst some publishers will want to promote you in a particular area, others may be more willing to think outside the box and explore other book options with you. Another book = another revenue stream. 

3. School visits

One of the biggest bonuses of writing for children and teenagers is school visits. Author talks and creative writing workshops are in demand throughout the year, but with tight budgets, you’re going to need to offer something unique to stand out, as well as work hard to secure bookings. Set up a dedicated page on your website to advertise visits and connect with teachers and school librarians on Twitter. Actively promote your visits, making sure you’re being clear about what you offer and what your ‘angle’ is. My books gave me an opportunity to push talks with LGBTQ+ content, but in a lighthearted way, which has been popular with secondary schools, and I’ve coupled that with workshops about writing comedy. The Society of Authors recommends a minimum full day (4 hour) visit fee of £350 + expenses, with many ‘in-demand’ authors charging significantly more. Once you’ve build up some word of mouth and have some testimonials, and with continued work on marketing, this can be a good income stream. 

4. Other paid writing gigs

Don’t underestimate how having a book published can make other sectors that use writers take notice. There are numerous websites that advertise copywriting services to businesses looking for writers to create promotional copy for them – the chance to hire a published author could be something a client attaches a lot of value to and will certainly help you stand out from the crowd. You could also explore paid jobs writing articles and features for magazines, websites and newspapers – being a published author can often make you an ‘expert’ on certain topics, especially if your book explores pertinent issues or themes. 

5. Editorial services

Going through the process of publishing a book gives you unique insights that might be valuable to others. Whilst not for everyone, some authors can be great at giving editorial feedback, able to combine their technical knowledge with an understanding of what it’s really like to be on the receiving end of a critique as a writer. 

6. Free Money!

Make sure you’re registered for PLR and ALCS. The former (Public Lending Right) is an organization that allocates a small amount of money to an author every time their book is borrowed from a UK library. ALCS distribute money to authors mainly from the photocopying of books in the UK. It’s not exactly ‘free money’ (you’re entitled to it for work you’ve done), but you don’t have to do anything to receive it, other than register with those organisations. You can find out more about PLR here: https://www.bl.uk/plr And ALCS here: https://www.alcs.co.uk

For a reality check on author earnings, check out this article: https://publishingperspectives.com/2018/06/writers-income-alcs-uk-survey-2010-publishers-association/

The days of writing novels and living solely of the proceeds are long gone, but by adopting a flexible approach where you adapt your core skills to use in different markets, it’s certainly possible to supplement your author income with writing-related activities. None of these approaches are particularly ‘instant’ however – and like any new business, you need to factor in time to become established and gain clients – and also like any new business, there are absolutely no guarantees. Depending on your circumstances, ditching the security of your regular full or part-time non-writing job may not be the best option in the first instance, so it’s important to do what works for you, but over time you may find you’re able to taper off that work as your writing-related income increases. 

Simon is the author of YA novels Noah Can’t Even and Noah Could Never, both published by Scholastic, and optioned for TV by Urban Myth Films. His short story, Penguins, is part of the forthcoming Proud Book anthology from Stripes. Simon is also a screenwriter, with credits including Rules of Love for the BBC. He is represented by Skylark Literary.

Concerning Hooks

The beginning to arguably one of the best books ever written is a twenty-page prologue ‘Concerning Hobbits’.It goes on to provide some fascinating insights into pipe-weedand extensive notes on administrative districts of the Shires. It’s a wonder the reader ever makes it to the green door in the hill. 

Sadly (or maybe not), the days of casually wandering into a story, like The Lord of the Rings, are more or less gone. Busy readers, agents and editors need a reason to stick with you …

That is where the hookcomes in. 

Attention Seekers

So, no pressure WMSparks, but the opening linesof your book might be the most important words you ever write. Sure, you know this already. That’s why you’ve reworked the first page more times than your protagonist has shrugged.

I sympathise enormously with a novel’s opening – it has so much to do, and so little time. Agents receive mountains of submissions (one agent quoted around 800 a month to me recently) which they read in their free-time – on the train, at lunch, in bed… you need to make a good first impression, grab their attention … keep them awake!

Well, how about this…

A dead bolt has a very specific sound.

This is one of the most chilling opening lines to a novel I have ever read. I bought the book there and then, on the basis of this one line.

This is the story of how I became my sister.

Sorry, what??

The men lock Roxy in the cupboard when they do it.

These are the kind of opening gambits which make me sit down in a bookshop. I’ll have a to do list as long asA Song of Ice and Fire, and an hour until the school run, but there I am, sitting on the floor of Waterstones because of something like this:

It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried out bed of the old North Sea.

One-line Wonders

I’m not saying you have to have one; a killer first line, or a chin-on-the-floor paragraph – they’re not for everyone and plenty of wonderful books do still open slowly, sensuously, soporifically even, before they hit you with the inciting incident. (Although I would still avoid lengthy detail on family history, however fond you are of Bagginses and Boffins).

But personally, I love them. I give a little cheer when I find a new one, and I’ve certainly had a lot of fun trawling through my books for my favourites. Like this:

I am fucked.

So what is it about a good hook that makes the reader want to read on? Actually prevents them from not reading on? It starts with a question, a dreadful curiosity, a conundrum, a puzzle to be solved. Ultimately we’re nosy creatures and can’t help ourselves. WHY are we listening for a deadbolt? HOW can someone become their sister? WHAT are the men doing once they’ve locked Roxy in that cupboard, and in the case of Mark Watney … WHY, WHAT and HOW all at once!

Are they too flashy? One-line wonders just for show? A word of caution: as with all our writing there is craft behind the hook, and pitfalls to avoid. Most importantly, you must deliver on the promise. A stellar opening won’t get you far if the rest of the manuscript falls flat – so don’t set yourself up for a fall. Questions you’ve raised should be answered, clues you’ve laid must lead somewhere and the usual rules apply: no clichés (waking up/dead bodies/weather reports), no media res,no dialogue, rhetorical questions, or vague, existential statements.

Just piquing of curiosity:

The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.

First the colours. Then the humans. That’s usually how I see things. 

By ten-forty-five it was all over.

And whatever you do, don’t be contrived or trite. This isn’t clickbait, it’s a carefully created lure where every sentence, every word, is working hard, screaming ‘PICK ME, PICK ME!’ Curiosity will take the reader so far, but an effective hook also sets the tone, sets the scene, shows your voice, shows your talent. Am I asking too much?

It was the closest kingdom to the queen’s, as the crow flies, but not even the crows flew it.

Lyra and her dæmon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.

Make it unputdownable, keep it that way, and hopefully your dream agent will be hooked.

(Opening lines from: Holly Overton; Sophie Cleverly; Naomi Alderman; Philip Reeve; Andy Weir; Patrick Ness; Margaret Atwood; Markus Zusak; John Steinbeck; Neil Gaiman, Phillip Pulman.)

GIVEAWAY TIME!

I’m offering a FREE first page critiqueto anyone who can guess my favourite all time opening line (which just happens to be my fave book too) A clue? I think it’s a TERRIFIC novel!

Also, please do let me know your favourite opening lines, I really am addicted!

More on how to create a great hook at:

https://www.bookstr.com/17-opening-lines-literature

Emma Read is the author of Milton the Mighty (Chicken House), which was shortlisted for the Bath Children’s Novel Award. She is represented by Lauren Gardner at Bell Lomax Moreton.

She is keen to mentor writers of similarly young MG fiction, particularly funny stories, however she is also a YA and upper MG writer with experience in critiquing both those age groups. 

Emma has completed courses in editing and polishing submission packages and was a mentor for the inaugural #WriteMentor programme.