Zadie Smith on writing; “work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet”

I love Zadie Smith’s rules of writing, which first appeared in The Guardian, because most of them are just so bloody practical. Her most famous novel White Teeth appeared on Time Magazine’s 100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923 to 2005 list (how many have you read?) and it’s really good advice, particularly the part about the internet. Most writers could do with using it for watching YouTube a little less… well, I could at least.

1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.

2. When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.

3. Don’t romanticise your “vocation”. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no “writer’s lifestyle”. All that matters is what you leave on the page.

4. Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.

5. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.

6. Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.

7. Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.

8. Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.

9. Don’t confuse honours with achievement.

10. Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.


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John Steinbeck on writing; “abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish”

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) offered a lot of advice to aspiring writers, like this from 1963 or to his son on falling in love from 1958. Author of classics such as Of Mice and Men, East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath (which won him the Pulitzer), he offered writers six invaluable tips on writing when he won the Nobel Prize in 1962. They’re just as useful today. Continue Reading

Elmore Leonard on writing; “if it sounds like writing, rewrite it”

Elmore Leonard (1925-2013) opens this new series of “writers on writing”. Known for crime fiction and thrillers, many of which became Hollywood movies (Out of Sight, Get Shorty, Jackie Brown and 3:10 to Yuma), he published his 10 rules of writing in the NY Times which were canonised by writers everywhere. Gritty and realistic, he took liberties with grammar, told it as it was, and firmly believed that “using adverbs is a mortal sin”. Continue Reading

How to self-publish; what I wish I’d have known beforehand

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creative commonsYou’ve nearly finished your book and are thinking of self-publishing? Well, congratulations! Or maybe it’s your 2016 resolution, to finally get that book finished. Either way, if you’ve done a little research you may have heard lots of authors declaring that the hard work really begins here. Whilst they may be right, your path will be less difficult if you follow this handy guide; it’s basically everything I wish I’d have known a year ago:

1. Get a critique of your final draft. If you’re going to spend any money, it should probably be in the editing process (as well as in preparing the cover). Otherwise you run the risk of publishing what agent Mary Kole calls, “just a printout of (your) manuscript bound between two thicker pieces of cardboard, and about as fulfilling as a pile of scratch paper”. If your budget won’t allow it, sites such as youwriteon allow other writers to critique portions of your book and wattpad and widbook will help you connect to readers to see if they like your work. Having recently reviewed a lot of self-published books for other authors, I can really notice the difference and guess what? Your readers will too.

2. Get your “platform” ready. If you’re starting at zero you’ll need time to find twitter followers and facebook friends but more importantly, you’ll want to grow an email list of subscribers from your website, like this one (that you can email when you launch). It also takes time – and organisation – to link all your different mediums together so that people can find you more easily. Start this process months before the book is ready.

3. Get some beta readers to review your book. Once you’ve got your real final draft (after editing and critiques) put it in the hands of actual readers. Goodreads has lots of groups of people who are willing to beta read and will offer really constructive feedback on your story.

4. Decide how to publish your book. For example, are you going to use a professional service, like BookBaby or do it yourself, through Amazon’s CreateSpace? Your decision will depend on money, confidence and your strategy. You may want a lot of hand-holding, e.g. do you know the answer to questions such as whether or not you want Digital Rights Management – DRM – for your book? The solution also depends on distribution. Do you want your book available everywhere or just Amazon? This is worth researching thoroughly.

5. Create your cover. It pays to use a professional but regardless, make sure the name of your book is clear in the thumbnail. Spend time investigating the look and feel of other book covers; readers will use your cover to decide whether or not they’ll read your book.

6. Preparing your final document will take much longer than expected. You’ll need to proofread and check the formatting and you’ll have greater distribution possibilities if your book is available in all three main formats (mobi for the kindle, epub for nook and iBooks and of course, pdf) but they’ll all need to be proofed separately.

7. Get your marketing blurbs ready. You need to distil your book into one or two sentences for taglines and you’ll also need long blurbs, short blurbs, A4 summaries (with plot spoilers and without) and a variety of teaser paragraphs. Make sure you also have your cover photo stored somewhere online in a really high-resolution that you can link to different sites (Photobucket will let you do this). Keep all these marketing documents in a word document on your desktop so it’s easily accessible to cut and paste from at a moment’s notice.

8. Sort out your advertising. Are you going to run giveaways, youtube book trailers or pay for ads on sites like goodreads? Are you going to try to get some author interviews fixed up? Are you going to try to get some guest blog posts, such as this one on BookDaily*? Ideally, you need to think about this before your book is out.

9. Line up reviewers before the book is launched. If you don’t have reviewers lined up for your book, then no one will read it! There are lots of places to ask for reviews but goodreads is a good start. If you can afford it, netgalley is probably unrivalled in distributing your books free to tons of booksellers and bloggers.

10. Finally, remember to celebrate the small victories. You are your very own, editing, marketing, advertising and production department and you have a very long road ahead of you. It won’t happen overnight, if at all (you only need to trawl through the millions of goodreads authors to understand how few people actually manage to become successful self-publishers) so remember to enjoy the small things: the jump from ten to fifty twitter followers; reaching 100 likes on your book’s facebook page; gaining a real footing on goodreads, where you have met some great friends, supporters and fans. Don’t spam your followers with “all about me” posts but do publicise your good reviews.

If you have anything to add, I’d love to hear it.


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*At the time of writing, on the day that BookDaily published this post, they had helpfully added a lot of spelling mistakes that weren’t in the original document I gave them… suffice to say, you can only do so much. Some marketing outcomes will be out of your control!

Feefle, flindrikin and unbrak; cultural vocabularies to help you write

What do feefle, flindrikin and unbrak have in common? Well, they’re part of a group of over 400 different Scottish words to describe snow and it was reported recently that they’re all being compiled into a new online Scottish Thesaurus (future topics include food, drink and rain). As The Guardian reminds us, the Scots are not alone; Hawaiians have 47 different words for describing bananas, the Inuits have possibly hundreds to describe snow, and the Baniwa tribe in Brazil have 29 ways to describe edible ants.

It seems that it’s very common for cultures to assign a number of different words to describe things that are important to them and is a key indicator of cultural preferences and importance (see Adam Jacot de Boinod’s wonderful article on what vocabularies tell us about culture here). I love how the idea of language defines peoples’ characters and personalities (or is it the other way around?). If you want to blow your mind, watch Tom Scott’s amazing youtube snippet on “Fantastic Features We Don’t Have in the English Language” here. I had never thought about how when we use our verbs, we have to give a time period. The Chinese don’t apparently. Who knew?

This is all really interesting stuff and it has an obvious relation to us as writers. The idea that Eskimos have hundreds of different words for snow is now an obvious cliché (it’s even listed on wikipedia as fact) but it’s worth thinking about in terms of dialect and speech. If you are writing about specific cultures, make sure you’re aware of the differences in language between them. If I was writing about the English for instance, I’d probably mention the rain…


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“I feel impelled to tell you”; frequently confused words

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On a recent family holiday, my sister totally confused us all. She was adamant that we’d been using the word compel wrongly and that we actually needed to use impel. I completely forgot about it until I just read it in an Enid Blyton book with my daughter, “he felt impelled to go and look at it” where she had used it in exactly the same way that I would have used compelled. Turns out, after a bit of research, that my big sister was right.Continue Reading

Do you need to really like the main characters to enjoy a book?

I read an article recently that brought to mind something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately; do you need to like the characters very much in order to enjoy a particular story? My book, The Sham has a lot of not-very-nice girls which seems to be following a trend in YA at the moment and certainly it’s quite common in adult fiction too. I enjoyed Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on The Train precisely because the main character was so unreliable. I loved her because of her faults, not in spite of. The same for Gone Girl; while I couldn’t exactly relate to the notion of faking my own death, I still loved the book. Continue Reading