writing tips​​

Readers often write to me asking for tips for their own writing and it’s hard to give good advice in cyberspace. Really you can’t advise someone you don’t know about writing you haven’t read - but I hope these tips I have put together will help. You can also down these tips as a pdf.

The basics

What does a writer do?
A writer is self-employed. Even if they have other day jobs, when writers write for publication - particularly when they write full-length fiction - they do it in their own time and usually in their own homes. They do not work on a publisher’s payroll so the way they make a living from writing is to make a financial deal with a publisher, sealed by a contract.
Every time a book is sold, a writer gets a fraction of the price paid. If it is sold at the full marked price on the book, it will be a percentage of that price, usually up to 10% (halve this if it is a picture book, because the illustrator gets half). These payments are called royalties.
But hardly any books are now sold at the full price. You get books discounted on the Internet, in book clubs, in supermarkets and in big bookshop chains. That discount – and it may be huge from publisher to bookseller, 80% or higher to the big players – takes a huge bite out of authors’ earnings. A sale to a book club of 1000s of copies may mean that the author makes less than a British penny – a few cents – on each copy.


In the writer’s contract, there will be an agreement to pay an advance, which means an advance payment on royalties. This is usually paid in thirds – a third on signature, a third on delivery and a third on publication, which should be no later than a year and a half after delivery.


So far this has all been about money but that’s so that you can see:


a/ that writers can’t just write what they, or you, want and get it published
b/ it’s very hard these days to make a living as a writer, unless your books hit the big time.
A writer has an idea for a book. If she is an established published author she may be able to get a contract with a publisher on the basis of an outline and a sample chapter. If she is just starting out, she will need to write the whole thing before submitting.
While there are some courses that might be useful (Arvon, Ty Newydd etc in the UK) there is no qualification you can get that will mean you are able or qualified to write a book. I recommend to everyone, regardless of age or gender, the magazine Mslexia. It is absolutely brilliant and even much-published writers love it.


What does an agent do?

An agent places books for publication, negotiates the terms of the contract with the publisher, sends the writer royalty payments and statements, deals with queries and disputes and generally supplies support, enthusiasm and praise. For this they take a percentage of your earnings – 10-15% in the UK, sometimes higher in the US. YOU SHOULD NEVER PAY AN AGENT A FEE TO TAKE YOU ON!


If you and your agent don’t get along or you are scared of her, get a new one. Get an agent before trying to get a publisher. Most publishers will look at a manuscript more seriously if it comes from an agent. Many of them no longer read unsolicited manuscripts (the slushpile).
You can find agents listed in the A & C Black yearbooks listed under Favourite Books. That will tell you their addresses and what kinds of books they take.


What does a publisher do?
A publisher takes the financial risk on a book. They pay the writer money, some of it in advance, because they believe that they can sell copies of the book. Since they have to pay the printer to produce the books and the salaries of all the editors, marketing, sales and publicity staff, rights managers, secretaries, reps (the people who take samples of the books round to bookshops), they have a lot of expenses and need to be sure that each book they publish will make money.


They are frequently wrong about this.


I’ve listed a lot of the people who work in a publishing house but the editor is the most important to the writer. They have to love the idea of your book because they are the ones who take it to a meeting and convince everyone else that it is a great book and will make back the money they pay out in advance and a lot more.


They should read your book, get back to you in reasonable time and comment on it and ask for changes. It is the editor’s responsibility to make clear what changes are needed. You don’t have to accept them all but be reasonable.


Remember that all people in publishing and all literary agents are on a monthly salary, paid straight into their bank. They never have to wait six weeks or more for a payment to go through. The people in the accounting departments of publishers don’t know you the way your editor does and sometimes it seems as if they don’t realise you have to eat, pay rent or mortgage and feed your cats, let alone keep yourself in computer consumables and clothes that don’t fall to bits.


Alternatives to conventional publishing are probably the way of the future and my description will be out-dated before long. Desk-top publishing, print-on-demand, electronic formats – all these are cheaper and easier than ever before. So your chances of being published will be higher, though your chances of making money at it probably lower, though these have never been high anyway.


Vanity publishing, where you pay a company to produce privately what looks like a commercially published book, is not advised. Let me say this another way – NEVER PAY ANYONE TO PUBLISH YOUR BOOK!

My advice

And much as I would like to, I can’t offer to read what you have written and give you a critique. Most readers who contact me for this purpose have started to write sometimes quite long fantasies. I’m assuming it’s fantasy you are interested in, even though I don’t consider the Stravaganza books to be exactly that. My editor describes them as “literary fiction with a fantasy element.”


So here is my advice, to be taken with a large pinch of Cybersalt, since I don’t know you or your style:


• Read a lot. This advice may sound superfluous but you’d be surprised. I mean really read, all genres, all periods and re-read too. Don’t be like the person who wrote and told me that one of my books almost made his top ten but thought I should be pleased because he had read “140 books!” Read thousands; read in bed, on the bus, in the loo, under the desk at school. Get in trouble for reading too much. Make adults say things like “you’ll ruin your eyes.” Or “You should get out into the fresh air.”

It’s only by saturating yourself in story – and everything I say here applies basically to fiction – that you learn how story works. And talk to your friends about it. Even if your own friends don’t read,  you can meet like-minded people on the Internet and talk about your favourite books. Be careful, of course.


• Write a lot. Don’t worry about publication, or anything else. Just write and see what happens. It might turn into a story; it might not. Write because it would hurt if you didn’t.


• Find yourself a writing buddy, whether someone you know or someone you can trust on the Internet. Exchange what you have written and comment on each other’s work in progress and knotty problems.


• If it’s fantasy you like, try fanfiction. Type the name of your favourite author + fanfiction into Google and see what comes up. It’s good practice and you will meet other like-minded people. There’s a Stravaganza strand on www.fanfiction.net now.


• Throw a lot away. Don’t be afraid to reject your early efforts; they won’t be wasted. When you first write, you tend to imitate your favourite writers and you might need to write all that Tolkien or Pullman out of your system. You need to find your own voice but you won’t know how to discover it without writing. But think of this as your apprenticeship. If you were a carpenter, you might keep the first ill-made stool you ever attempted but only for sentimental reasons; you probably wouldn’t want to show it to anyone, least of all someone who needed a stool to sit on.


• And when I say, “throw it away,” it doesn’t have to be literal. I mean, “forget about it.” One day you might unearth something you wrote, see some merit in a character or phrase and be started off on a new track.


• If you put “Writing fantasy” into Google, you get over seven and a half million results. This should tell you something. There are lots of people out there wanting to do it and don’t let newspaper stories about Christopher Paolini getting his first book accepted at the age of fifteen for shedloads of money give you a false impression of how difficult it is.


Here is my advice distilled into ten points:


• Decide whether what you are writing is for teenagers or adults. If you are a teenager yourself, it’s likely that will be your readership too.
• Practise on your friends and on the Internet.
• Write fan fiction; it will get other writers’ voices out of your head.
• If you can count the number of books you have read, you haven’t read enough.
• Don’t ask me for ideas; if you haven’t any ideas, you are not a writer.
• Don’t ask me to read your MS. If I did, I wouldn’t have time to write my books.
• Imagine reading what you have written in ten years’ time; will you be embarrassed?
• Forget about being published until you are at least in your 20s (forget, in particular, Christopher Paolini and Flavia Bujor).
• Read the A & C Black Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook (or the children’s one – see below) till you know it inside out.
• Try to get an agent before approaching a publisher.

My top ten rules for would-be fantasy writers

• Beautiful people can be very boring.
• Distinguish between an identifier and an annoying verbal or behavioural tic.
• People without flaws can be very boring.
• Don’t build in merchandising opportunities.
• Don’t use linguistic inversions or, if you must, use them VERY sparingly.
• You are not an estate agent or fashion retailer. Don’t describe houses and clothes as if you were.
• On no account ever let a plot hinge on a birthmark.
• Don’t get carried away by names.
• Remember - your readers will have read the same books as you.
• A series of exciting events is not a plot.

 

These are all pretty negative but they reflect what people get wrong when they start out. Have a go anyway and then put your work down and read it a week later as a reader not a writer.


And the very best of luck to all of you.

My favourite books about writing

The Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook
This is updated every year in August and published by A & C Black at £12.99. There is an adults’ version too.


Mslexia magazine


Screenwriting Updated
by Linda Aronson (Silman-James Press, USA)


From Pitch to Publication
by Carole Blake (Macmillan)


Marketing your Book: an Author's Guide

by Alison Baverstock (A&C Black)


The Seven Basic Plots
by Christopher Booker (Continuum)


The Internet: A Writer's Guide
by Jane Dorner (A&C Black)


How to Write for Children and Get Published
by Louise Jordan (Piatkus)


Story
by Robert McKee (Methuen)


The Dictionary of Imaginary Places
by Alberto Manguel & Gianni Guadalupi (Bloomsbury)


How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy
by Orson Scott Card (Writer’s Digest Books)


The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land

by Diana Wynne Jones (Vista)

My favourite fantasy novels

Here are some of my favourite books in the fantasy and not-quite-fantasy genres (the links are to the British paperback where available). I've grouped each author's titles together.


Annie Dalton
Out of the Ordinary
Night Maze
The Alpha Box


Lene Kaaberbol
The Shamer’s Daughter
The Shamer’s Signet
The Serpent Gift
The Shamer’s War


Rhiannon Lassiter
The Hex trilogy (Science Fantasy):
    Hex
   
Hex: Shadows
   
Hex: Ghosts
   
Waking Dream

The Rights of Passage series:
     Borderland
    
Outland
    
Shadowland


Ursula le Guin

The Earthsea Trilogy (set)
The Left Hand of Darkness (adult)


Margaret Mahy
The Changeover
The Tricksters


Geraldine McCaughrean

A Pack of Lies


Robin McKinley
Spindle’s End


Garth Nix

Sabriel
Lirael
Abhorsen


Susan Price
The Sterkarm Handshake
The Sterkarm Kiss


Philip Reeve

Mortal Engines
Predator’s Gold
Infernal Devices
A Darkling Plain


Diana Wynne Jones
Archer’s Goon
Eight Days of Luke
Fire and Hemlock
Howl’s Moving Castle
A Tale of Time City
The Homeward Bounders
Dogsbody


Plus, of course, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series and books by Tanith Lee and Tamora Pierce.

Useful links

Help! I need a Publisher!
This blog by published writer, Nicola Morgan, offers some invaluable advice. I think it's brilliant.


An Awfully Big Blog Adventure
This blog, produced by a group of children's authors, provides a fascinating insight into the writing life.


You will find more links to many other useful blogs if you go to my Book Maven blog.

© Mary Hoffman 2019