6 years writing – 10 books written – here’s what I’ve learned

 

Six years ago this month, following a drastic change in health circumstances, which had led to years of chronic pain, and clinical depression I knew for the sake of my mental health I needed to find a hobby. With limited mobility, there wasn’t much I could think of but then I remembered how much I’d loved writing as a child, how I’d had a burning desire to become an author until I was told at secondary school this wouldn’t be a viable career option.

I decided to try writing a short story.  Two characters came to mind, Grace and Charlie, lifelong best friends. The story begins with Grace digging up a memory box that the girls had buried several years before on Grace’s sixteenth birthday. Grace hopes to the box might contain a clue to explain Charlie’s last words before her mysterious disappearance – “I’ve done something terrible, please forgive me.”

My short story soon became 90k words of a (terrible at that stage) novel but I’d fallen in love with the girls, with their story of friendship and loyalty and courage and I rewrote and rewrote until it was ready to submit. I’m eternally grateful a publisher took a chance on my psychological thriller – The Sister – and turned my hobby into a full-time career.

Now, just six years on I am writing my tenth book. (Five have been published, two are due for publication this year and two for next year and I’m working on something new). I’ve sold well over a million copies, been translated into twenty-five languages, and although I can’t, of course, speak for every writer I wanted to share my opinions on some of the things I have learned along the way.

1)        Write the book you’d love to read. It’s so tempting to try and follow market trends and write a book you think has more of a shot of being published. Don’t. Market trends change so quickly you’ll always miss the boat. You spend such a long time with a manuscript I think if you’re writing something you genuinely love and are passionate about it shines through the finished product. Although my thrillers have been hugely successful I’ve also started writing high concept contemporary fiction in a different genre under the pen name ‘Amelia Henley‘ because I had a story in my heart I couldn’t let go. (You can read more about writing the story you want to rather than the story you should in a previous post, here)

2)        Don’t follow the rules. They are endless and who made them up anyway? Use common sense – if you write a 300k word romance it’s unlikely to be published but don’t be afraid to trust your gut. Prologues, for example, are often the source of much debate and I wrote a recent post on my opinion, which you can read here.

3)        Don’t compare yourself to others. This. Is. Soul. Destroying. (Not just in writing but in every aspect of life). There are always going to be people you aspire to and that’s a good thing but constantly comparing yourself to others is stressful and nothing stifles creativity like stress. The writer that’s shouting about a new deal on social media – be happy for them – your time will come and you don’t know what they are dealing with in their personal life. Rarely are things as glittery and shiny as they appear online. The writer that’s written 5k words today and is SO HAPPY – doesn’t affect your progress at all, it only changes the way you feel about it. Most writers I know write far quicker than me but it doesn’t matter. I write, on average 1000 words a day but I edit as I go (see No. 2 – I don’t follow rules) and am generally very satisfied with the quality I produce. Every word builds a sentence, every sentence a scene, every scene a chapter, and then, eventually, you’ll have a book. It isn’t a race.

4)        You won’t run out of ideas. This used to terrify me ALL OF THE TIME. I’d see writers online (and back to number 3 here) and worry that they have notebooks full of ideas and I had one – ONE – that I’d be working on. So far, when I’m coming to the end of a first draft, or shortly after, another idea will start to brew but until then I have no idea what I’ll write next. My brain can’t seem to cope with thinking of more than one thing at once and that’s okay. Ideas will come when you least expect it. (Read my previous post on ‘Where do ideas come from’ here.)

5)        Don’t force the words to come. We hear much in the writing rules (see no. 2) about how writing should be a ‘discipline’ and we ‘must’ write every day. To me this sounds like a punishment and writing above all else should be enjoyable. It is important to try and form a routine and not to wait until inspiration strikes (spoiler – it doesn’t always strike) but sometimes forcing yourself to sit in front of a blank page is demoralising. If I’m stuck on a plot point I step away from my computer. I go for a swim and 99% of the time the words will begin to flow again once I’ve had a break.

6)        Don’t sweat the small stuff. Punctuation and grammar. Here’s my confession (whispers) I don’t know what an abstract noun is or a concrete noun is or why I shouldn’t use them together. This was one of the first things a copy editor pointed out I was doing wrong. I’m still not entirely sure. I try hard with my drafts, I chuck the odd semi-colon in to prove I’ve made an effort but I get things wrong as we all do. It makes me sad when I receive emails from people telling me they want to write but they can’t because they are dyslexic or feel they are too uneducated and can’t get to grips with grammar and punctuation. Of course, polish your manuscript as much as you can but the MOST important thing is you have a good story to tell with strong characters. There are proofreaders, copy editors, beta readers, even friends and family who can help iron out any niggles. Don’t let worry about the final touches to a manuscript put you off writing one.

7)        Don’t become obsessed with the charts. If you’ve published a book it’s so tempting to be constantly hitting the refresh button to see where you chart on Amazon. Don’t.  Become. Obsessed. The Amazon charts are a complicated beast comprising of Kindle Unlimited, Prime Reading, Kindle Firsts etc. which all count towards chart positions so a high chart position doesn’t always necessarily equate to straightforward sales. Remember, stress stifles creativity.

8)        You can’t please every reader. If you’ve got a book out there you’re going to be tempted at some stage to read reviews and it’s human nature that you’ll gloss over the good ones and the bad ones will lodge in your mind. My debut, The Sister very quickly sold over half a million copies and I read every single review and tried to please every single one of those reviewers while I was writing my second book – The Gift. I sped up the pace, slowed down the pace, put in more twists, reduced the number of twists, tied myself in knots. You just… can’t.

9)        Celebrate EVERY LITTLE success. This is SO IMPORTANT. Remember, that writer on social media who is having the Best. Time. Ever. They’ve had knockbacks too. We all have. It’s an industry of unavoidable lows, which makes it even more important to appreciate every single good thing that happens. Those successes will keep you going through the inevitable low times and throughout those low times never lose hope. Things can turn around when you least expect it.

10)      Don’t be embarrassed to call yourself a writer. Don’t be ashamed to want to make a living out of it. This is something I struggled with enormously for a very long time. Looking at my shoes and mumbling vaguely whenever anyone asked what I did for a living. Be proud. Don’t use the term ‘aspiring writer’ if you write, you’re a writer. Also there’s a weird thing (and I’ve been guilty of it myself) where some writers feel they have to say they write for the love of it and not for financial recompense and while you do have to love writing to write there’s nothing wrong with ambition. I have a mortgage to pay and children to feed and this is how I chose to do it. You can read about the moment I finally felt like a ‘real’ writer here.

My latest psychological thriller – The Family – is currently 99p across all UK digital platforms. Download a copy from Amazon here (back to paying my mortgage and feeding my children…)

Thank you!

 

 

Hook an Agent Part V – Bestselling authors share how they found their agent

In Part I of my ‘Hook an Agent’ series I shared my submission letter for The Sister which you can read here. In Part II, here, Literary Agent Rory Scarfe told us ‘Never let your ideas be ordinary.’ Part III was Rowan Lawton sharing her top 3 tips for writing that synopsis & I shared part of my synopsis for The Sister. You can read that post here. Part IV, you can read here, featured agent Eugenie Furniss advising us to tighten those first 3 chapters, I also shared the opening of The Sister.

Today, the final part of the series, is all about how to find an agent. It’s tricky to find the right agent for you and as with any industry there are those who are fabulous and those who aren’t. It’s imperative to find someone you can trust because not only will they be guiding your career, they will also be taking a percentage of your earnings. There are horror stories of course, authors who have had their fingers burned, and while I feel it’s better to have no agent, than the wrong agent, the good news is there are so many credible ones to choose from.

We all have different approaches from reading the Writers & Artists’ Yearbook to Googling Literary Agents. I was very careful and almost reluctant to submit my manuscript. It took ages for me to draw up a list of who I wanted to submit to. For my search I read as many books as I could in my genre and when I fell in love with one I emailed the author to ask who their agent was and whether they were happy with them. If the answer was positive (and they weren’t all positive) I’d find out who else was on that agent’s list, how successful the books they placed were. Then I’d stalk them on social media, trying to get a sense of whether I thought I could work with them. I ended up with a small list but it’s important to not initially send your submission package out to as many agents as you can, as sometimes that ‘no’ will come with personalised feedback on your story and then you’ve the option to tweak your MS if you agree, before you send out again. I’ll hand over now to this fabulous bunch of bestselling authors who will share their journey.

I bought a copy of The Writers & Artists’ Yearbook and circled all the agents who represented the bestselling authors in my genre. I then drew up a list of thirty and sent a personalised cover letter, synopsis and the first three chapters to my top six. It didn’t take long for the rejections to start rolling in but Darley Anderson (who represents Lee Child and Martina Cole) asked to see the full manuscript. Six agonising weeks later he rang me back. The book had potential, he said, but it wasn’t of publishable standard – yet. He told me what I needed to work on and told me to resubmit when I’d written a new draft. Several weeks after I resubmitted it I had a phone call. It was Madeleine Milburn who was (then) Darley’s head of foreign rights. She loved my book so much she said, that she’d asked Darley if she could represent me. Maddy’s enthusiasm for my book was infectious and I signed with her. Several years later, when she left to start her own agency, I went with her. We’re now approaching our ten year agent/author anniversary! C. L. Taylor

I finished writing The Teacher and then sent my first three chapters off to fifteen agents. After four immediate rejections within a week, I was contacted by Diane Banks who asked to read the rest of the book. She then travelled to Ramsgate from London and we met for lunch. It all happened so fast! I got on really well with Diane and so I signed with her agency. Katerina Diamond

I’d given up hope of finding an agent, and I’d signed a two book deal with HQ Digital (Carina at the time) when i got an email from Lisa Moylett, my now agent asking to read the full. I was in France with no wifi, so had to tell her that I’d send it when I got home…I sent it the morning after I got home and she emailed that night to say could she call to talk to me about representation…only problem was, I’d been for dinner with a friend and had sunk loads of wine so had to email back and say I couldn’t speak to her til the morning! Luckily, even though I did give her a bit of hassle, she still wanted to represent me – I was invited for lunch with her and Jamie MacClean, her business partner, and was instantly made to feel like part of the CMM family. There was no way I couldn’t sign with her! Lisa Hall

I first came across Rowan Lawton on the Novelicious website where I read that among other things she likes issue-led debuts. My first novel was issue-led, so I thought Rowan might like it. Instead of submitting directly to her, I entered that novel into a competition on which she was a judge. I was shortlisted, and Rowan liked my book and worked with me for some months on changes. In the end, she turned me down. Of course, I was gutted, but I remained determined. I entered the Bristol Short Story Prize twice when she was a judge and to my astonishment was shortlisted both times. I met up with Rowan at one of the prize ceremonies – and as we chatted, I realised that we loved the same kind of books. She was so friendly and engaging, and unlike any other agent I had approached, she was eager to read everything I sent her. Finally in June 2016 when I sent her my third book, The Maid’s Room, she agreed to represent me. I was ecstatic because I knew this was a game-changer. I hugged her very hard indeed. Sure enough, four months later, I signed with Hodder & Stoughton as well as several foreign publishers, and my debut novel The Maid’s Room is out on 16th November. Fiona Mitchell

I was a bit fed up about royalties one day and decided to approach (the late, great) Carole Blake. We were friendly on social media and when we met at conferences and I sent her an email that began, ‘I know you’re not taking anybody on, but I’m going to ask you anyway.’ She felt that lovely Juliet Pickering, another agent in the Blake Friedmann Literary Agency, was a better fit for me, let Juliet read my work and made the introduction so we could see how we got on. We got on very well and Juliet has played a leading role in steering my career to greater things. I am a very happy (agented) author! Sue Moorcroft

I’d researched agents who I knew wanted psychological/crime fiction and those who I would love to be represented by, then made a ‘hit-list ‘of favourites. The list was fairly long! I got the usual rejections, then some wonderfully exciting emails asking for me to send my full manuscript. The agent I signed with happened to be the first agent who asked for the full. Her response ended up being a rejection, but with a snippet of hope tagged on the end – the magical words: ‘I think you are talented and would be very happy to talk more about you and your writing, or to see anything else you might write in this area.’ By the time I received this email, I’d begun my second novel – Saving Sophie – the opening chapters of which had been longlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger, so I immediately let her know of this! A meeting was arranged for the following month and I accepted her offer of representation about a week after. Sam Carrington

I had known my agents for some years prior to signing with her and our paths had crossed several times at various writing events. When the time came for me to look for an agent, I wanted someone I felt comfortable talking to, someone who I could speak to freely and someone who I felt loved my work. My agent ticked all these boxes, so it was an easy choice for me. Sue Fortin

 

Thanks so much to all who have taken part in my ‘Hook an Agent’ series. I do hope it’s been useful to writers approaching the submission stage. Good luck to all submitting!

Hooking an agent part I – Sharing my submission letter for The Sister

Writing a book was initially a distraction from the chronic pain I was in, a hobby once I suddenly found myself with severely restricted mobility. Even now, I still remember the utter disbelief and excitement when I realised I had an actual finished novel and it was only then I started to think about putting together a submission package and sending my debut, Buried Memories (later retitled The Sister by my publishers) out into the world.

I devoured books, blogs, Googled endlessly for tips on how to write the perfect submission letter, and word by painful word, crafted my offering, almost editing it more than my manuscript. My palms were clammy as I sent off my first submissions, only to two agents at that time, and sat back to wait the alleged 6-8 weeks I’d read about. To my surprise both agents replied within a few hours, they’d loved my letter, been hooked by my elevator pitch, thought the premise was brilliant and and would start reading straight way. Do keep them informed of any offers. What happened to an 8-week wait? Cue total panic (never sub before your manuscript is ready – but that’s another story).

I’m no expert, and neither do I claim to be, but I’ve a few friends at the moment who have reached submission stage and so for them, and everyone else putting together a package, I wanted to share my letter. I do hope it’s helpful.

Next week, for Part II, I’ll be joined by fabulous literary agent, Rory Scarfe, of Furniss Lawton with his guidelines to giving your submission letter a head start.

Good luck to all those subbing!

 

Dear

I enclose the first three chapters and synopsis of my domestic noir novel, ‘BURIED MEMORIES’ a book about a grieving girl who thought there was nothing as frightening as being alone – she was wrong. The novel is complete at 80,000 words.

‘I’ve done something terrible, Grace. I hope you can forgive me.’ Grace Matthews, an anxious young woman is devastated when her best friend, Charlie, dies and feels that until she discovers the meaning behind Charlie’s last words, she cannot move forward. As Grace becomes sucked into the mystery surrounding Charlie’s family, her association with them, especially with Charlie’s sister Anna, threatens to destroy Grace’s career, relationship and ultimately, end her life. Grace’s hunt for the truth forces her to confront the childhood she desperately wanted to forget and she realises she can’t trust anyone, especially those she loves.

I am submitting to you because

This, my debut novel, began life as a flash fiction piece in a writing group challenge last year. I was given three words and ten minutes and the bare bones of Chapter One was born. I couldn’t sleep that night for thinking about Grace and Charlie and felt compelled to write their story. I’ve written non-fiction for various publications and websites for several years. I’ve had a column in Holistic Therapist Magazine (LJ’s Journal) since April 2012 and was a contributor to Tiny Buddha’s 365 Love Challenges (HarperOne/Harper Collins.) I attend writing workshops, evening classes and retreats whenever I can – I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning; show me a literary festival and I’m there! I’m currently working on my second novel, ‘Second-hand secrets.’

Kind regards,

 

Louise Jensen

Sponge Cake & Self Doubt – The day before publication…

Today I’m distracted, unable to settle. I’ve opened and closed my wip, started and abandoned a short story. The puppy has trailed me as I’ve paced our overgrown garden, the cat rolling his eyes as I’ve stalked the places he thinks of as his own. I’m edgy, excited, easily distracted. It’s a little like waiting for Christmas, except it isn’t. It’s better.

Tomorrow is the paperback publication day of my debut, The Sister and even with a pile of paperbacks sitting on my desk and less than twelve hours to go I still can’t quite believe it’s happening.

This morning I’ve collected the bookmarks for my Waterstones launch tomorrow night, resisted the urge to dive into my cake and bought enough wine to fill the boot of my car. Each time I’ve been out I’ve darted into Asda and stood staring blankly at the books for so long an assistant came to check if I was ok and I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that tomorrow, nestled amongst the other titles, my story will sit. It doesn’t seem real.

It’s been a long road to publication, and after signing with the digital phenomenon that is Bookouture I never dreamed that a year on I’d also have a contract with Sphere (Little, Brown). After all those no’s finally two yes’s.

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I feel so emotional today. So thankful that even when it seemed utterly impossible anyone would take me on I never gave up writing and submitting. Tomorrow in-between two radio interviews, I’m planning to visit WH Smiths, Waterstones and the supermarkets to reassure myself it’s really there. I can’t imagine how I’ll feel when I see Grace and Charlie’s story on a shelf although there’s still a part of me, a larger part than I’d like, that is half-expecting a last minute ‘sorry we’ve read the book again and changed our minds’ email. I’m not sure when this self-doubt will go, if it ever will, but in the meantime I’m watching the clock and waiting. Endlessly waiting. And for now, still resisting the cake.

 

 

 

 

Share your world 2015 – Week 50

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Favourite thing to photograph? Write? Or Cook?

I love to write fiction. I write non-fiction for work and writing is always a pleasure but nothing tops creating a character you root for, laugh with and weep over.

Photograph – my kids. They’ve grown so quickly.

Cook – I like to experiment. I get bored of eating the same things. And cakes. Don’t forget the cakes.

Did you like swinging as a child? Do you still get excited when you see a swing? 

Yes! We had a swing in our garden, along with a see-saw, and I remember fighting with my sister over whose turn it was. (She won, she’s bigger). One of my favourite photos is me sitting on the swing while she stands behind me. We look so harmonious but I bet it didn’t last long. My cousin had a tyre swing in her garden which I loved, although I often fell off. If I see a swing now I can’t resist.

What has surprised you about blogging?

So many things. I started a blog 18 months ago with no idea what to write, if I could write. I’ve fallen in love with the blogging community – it’s so supportive. My writing has improved week by week thanks to all the helpful feedback I’ve received. I’m in the process of researching agents and publishers, looking for a good home for my recently finished first novel and have started writing my second.  I’m also self-publishing two flash fiction books next year. I don’t think I’d have got this far without you guys.

List at least five favorite desserts.

So tough. When I go out to dinner I always check out the dessert options first. Usually my lovely husband orders one he knows I’ll like so I have two!

  1. Eaton Mess
  2. Profiteroles
  3. Key Lime Pie
  4. Apple crumble and custard
  5. Trifle
  6. Hot chocolate fudge cake & vanilla ice cream.

Bonus question:  What are you grateful for from last week, and what are you looking forward to in the week coming up?

I’m so grateful a friend is beta reading my manuscript again after I’ve added in a new subplot – I’ve got to the stage I can’t read it anymore!

I’m looking forward to some quality time with my family over Christmas.

 

Share your world – courtesy of Cee’s Photography. Answer the questions to join in.