Blogging for Clients – My Top Ten Practical Tips

wordpress-265132_1280As I strive for success as an author, my day job as a freelance marketer pays the bills, as it has done reliably for the last 13 years. Unsurprisingly, much of my work revolves around writing – material like websites, newsletters, brochures, articles, white papers and… blogs.

Several people have asked me how I go about blogging for clients, so I thought I’d share some practical tips. As I blog solely for Business to Business (B2B) clients, these tips refer to B2B blogging. Business to Consumer (B2C) blogging, such as, for example, for a retail outlet or a lifestyle service, has many similarities and the same processes will be helpful. But consumers may be seeking a more intimate/personal rather than corporate/professional experience from such a blog.

So, here we are, my practical tips for B2B blogging for clients:

  1. Understand your value: The biggest problem the small or medium-sized business has with a blog is… writing it. A blog is a hungry monster and that well-intentioned weekly post comes around very quickly. Not only that, but if your prospective client is not a confident writer, sitting down to pen a blog post feels a bit like a trip to the dentist – they’ll do anything to avoid it. Good news then. This is why outsourcing the blog is a very appealing prospect for many SME’s. You obviously have to be able to write – but your real value beyond this is that you keep the blogging engine turning over for your client, so they don’t have to.
  2. Get to know your client: Key to blogging successfully for a client is to acquire a good understanding of their business – what they do, who they sell to, why people buy from them, what kind of a company/brand they are, who their competition is – and their industry overall. Understand what’s important to your client, and to their clients or customers.
  3. Variety is the spice: You need to produce a variety of posts which are likely to interest the sort of people your client seeks to engage with. For B2B, this should include industry related stories (see below); news and information related to your client’s product or service offering, background on the company, teams, ethos, corporate social responsibility etc; updates on your client’s engagement and presence (attendance at events, industry awards, networking, partnerships and collaborations etc), thoughts and opinions on the state of the industry, regulations, trends, trading environment etc. You can inject humour and post occasionally on charity fun runs and ice bucket challenges, but keep the lighter stuff under control. You need variety, but don’t sacrifice relevance.
  4. Plan ahead: Weekly posts come round just as quickly for you as they do for your client. But it’s your job to keep them coming. I keep a spreadsheet for each client and I plan 4-6 weeks ahead with posts. Some write themselves quickly, but others require more research and take time to come together. I mark up when we need posts around seasonal topics or events like conferences and exhibitions. The spreadsheet helps me keep track of what topics I’ve covered, what posts are in progress, awaiting client approval, needing images etc. I include a brain-dump section, thoughts and ideas, web links and other stuff I don’t want to forget – material for future posts.
  5. Communicate: A regular touch-point with your client is a must. They’re not offloading their blog to you so they can forget about it. It’s a vital component of their marketing mix and their brand. I would suggest (ideally) weekly or (at least) fortnightly telephone or Skype sessions – 15-20 minutes maximum – to keep the whole show on the road. Worth mentioning here, you need to agree with your client what the process is for approval of your blog posts. Some clients will want to approve each post, where others will take a more relaxed approach. Personally, I prefer to gain client approval for all posts – at least until I’m confident that the messaging, tone etc is in line with their expectations. Even then, I will still request approval for certain types of post.
  6. Go digging: You need to be able to find the grain of a story in an item of industry or general news, then draft a post which conveys some aspect of your client’s ethos or expertise in the context of that news. So do your research. Subscribe to industry news feeds (Twitter is beyond brilliant for this), do your own Google/keyword searches and ‘train’ your client to tell you anything of particular note.
  7. First base only: You need to be subtle and have a light touch; your posts are not sales pitches, they are conversation starters. The purpose of the blog is to communicate your client’s personality and values, not push their products – that will turn readers off in droves. You want people to like your client and perceive a value in what they have to say – to the extent that they choose to read the posts, subscribe, or better still engage. That’s when they’ll start clicking through to your client’s website or picking up the phone.
  8. Stir it up: Go carefully with this until you know what your client is comfortable with, but your blog posts can and should be opinionated and even controversial. It’s emotion that engages people, far more than polish. However, this is not every client’s cup-of-tea, so proceed with caution.
  9. Cross-fertilise: A blog is all very well in isolation, but you can make posts work harder by cross-fertilising other social media channels, such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Facebook and others. Your corporate posts could also find a more permanent home on your client’s website, or be used in newsletters. Encourage your client to broadcast the blog posts via their own social media profiles too, as well as corporate.  They should also include a link to the blog, or better still, the latest blog post, in their email footer. That way, they will increase the reach of the material and encourage engagement.
  10. Be flexible: As much as you plan ahead, your schedule will get bumped around. The beauty of a blog is that you can see something in the news in the morning, and have a blog post out covering your client’s angle on it by the afternoon. It’s not always like that, but sometimes the opportunity or the material is too good to pass over.

You’ll notice I’ve said nothing about SEO – search engine optimisation.  SEO is a science, even a black art, or at least, that’s what the SEO companies would have you believe. If your client feels strongly about getting smart with keywords and searchability, there are firms who will analyse the internet for them and advise them on the most productive phrasing to include for optimum searchability.

But for many SME’s it’s not rocket science to work out what the most commonly associated words and phrases would be.  Then you can include those most obvious key words and phrases within your blog posts wherever it’s appropriate – but not to excess.  Why? Because the more you try to work the SEO angle, the more stilted and desperate your writing can look.  Readers will come to your client’s blog because you write compelling copy on topics that are of interest to them, not because you repeatedly ram home a list of keywords. But that’s just my opinion and doubtless the fans of extreme SEO will disagree.  There you are, I’m being opinionated and controversial.

I know some people are more intense about blogging, but I suggest to my B2B clients that we aim for one meaty/serious (500+ word) post a week plus no more than a couple of short or quirky posts each month. Analysis has occasionally shown that longer posts (2,000+ words) are better (better in what way, I’m not entirely sure). But I believe if you’ve got something to say and you’re done in 500 words, you should not puff up a post for the fun of it. It disrespects your readers’ time. It’s easy to overwork a readership and, particularly in the case of B2B, one has to remember that readers have many claims on their time.

With a clearly defined brief around a fixed number of posts and a regular communication touchpoint, it’s perfectly feasable to arrive at a fixed fee for delivering a level of blogging activity geared to raising your client’s profile amongst their targeted audience, and enhancing their brand.

Top Ten Takeaways: Self-Publishing in the Digital Age Seminar

fountain-pen-447575_1280I spent a fascinating day last weekend crammed into an airless room with 100 other would-be self-publishers. It was time (and money) well spent.

Bloomsbury Publishing’s Writers & Artists brand does a nice line in help and advice for would-be writers, whether we want to try our luck in the traditional publishing environment (as in W&A’s seminar How to Hook an Agent which I attended a few months ago – and blogged about here) or take the independent route.

The first half of the event ranged through editing and cover design to publishing via Amazon and alternative ‘assisted’ routes to self-publishing and marketing. The afternoon centred around the real-life experiences of several self-published authors and their varied approaches to the business of getting their words out there and noticed.

I’m not going to brain-dump the whole event. I don’t suppose W&A would thank me for that since if they’ve got an eye on what the market is looking for, they will doubtless be running and re-running this excellent seminar in the future. Instead, I’m offering you what I felt were my Top Ten Takeaways in terms of information, insight and advice for the would-be independent author.

(1)          Hope for the Future

The landscape has changed rapidly in the last couple of years with the stigma previously associated with self-publishing in its various forms now disappearing into the distance. Self-publishing is no longer traditional publishing’s embarrassing poor relation. It is, in the words of Dr Alison Baverstock, ‘part of publishing’.

(2)          Proof of Concept

Self-publishing is now regarded as a feeder to traditional publishing. Instead of wading through what is often branded the slush pile, agents and publishers are increasingly seeking talent amongst the self-published charts. If a book sells and if the author seems to understand what’s required to market it – then they’re an attractive proposition for the traditional publishing space (IF, that is, they can be persuaded to cross the trad/indie divide…).

(3)          The Professionals

Rapid change and the shifting fortunes of publishing houses has led to many skilled former employees now offering their services freelance to independent authors. The indie author now has access to skilled professionals – editors, illustrators, cover designers and more – to help them elevate the quality of their self-published books.

(4)          The Critical Role of Editing

All three phases are vital: Developmental (for help with story, structure etc), copy editing (to iron out oddities and inconsistencies, correct grammar, stylistic issues etc) and proof reading (elimination of those itty-bitty sneaky little typos). The focus is on achieving a professional finish and making your book the best it can be before you share it with the world.

(5)          Planning Ahead

Good editors are booked up well in advance. The time to start thinking about signing-up with an editor is before your manuscript is finished. Don’t expect an overnight turnaround either. Your editor will take around 6-8 weeks to review and return your manuscript.

(6)          You’ve got it Covered

Don’t underestimate the importance of a professionally designed cover. It must reflect the genre of your book (so readers know what to expect) and be eye-catching at thumbnail size. Budget anything between £90 and £350 for a professionally designed cover.

(7)          It’s all in the Brand

When you’re getting your cover designed, don’t forget to think about other marketing materials which may help to promote your book and strengthen your brand – designs for website, blog and facebook banners for example, bookmarks, flyers, business cards, promotional postcards.

(8)          Kindle is HUGE

Don’t undervalue this soft media as not being a real book (I’ve heard this a lot). Amazon sells around twice as many Kindle e-books as print books in the USA and the UK isn’t far behind. Kindle owners are adventurous and speculative readers, buying around four times as many books as non-Kindle users. This is seriously good news for the indie author who can manage to conquer the mountain of discoverability

(9)          Discoverability – the Holy Grail of Self-Publishing

More people are buying books on-line than ever before. They’re searching using keywords to find genres and subject matter that intrigues them. But with the stock of self-published material growing daily, discoverability is critical to success.  Your self-published book is but a blip, a note written in disappearing ink pinned to a tree in a vast forest, unless you can get it in front of readers. Being discoverable means getting your meta-data (all your book details) working for you on Amazon. Being discoverable means getting somewhere on the Amazon/Kindle rankings for your genre (a clue… it’s better for chart success to sell lots of books in bursts rather than steadily). Being discoverable means being active and engaged all over social media, blogging, building an e-mail list, cultivating interest and loyalty in readers, one reader at a time. Being discoverable means garnering a host of good reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, and a whole bunch of reader forums, genre and review sites. Being discoverable means getting creative with promotions and making use of every tool in the Amazon author toolkit.

(10)        Don’t Write Shit!

(Those, by the way, were the exact words used by the presenter!) This last point was echoed by every speaker. Everything begins with you having created a great book. None of this will do anything for you if you haven’t done the first job, which is to write a ripping good read.

So that’s simple then.

Writing courses: A different perspective

Nina MishkinFellow blogger Nina Mishkin had something important to say about my last post.

I love that people comment on my blog posts. I particularly like it when they either disagree with me, or have insights which open up the debate. I’ve received an especially interesting response to my previous post on courses, seminars and other learning opportunities open to novice writers. It’s worth sharing beyond the smaller community that might read comments on posts, so I thought I’d publish it as a post in its own right. It’s from a blogger I greatly admire, Nina Mishkin, who blogs at The Getting Old Blog. Here’s what she said:

In my view, it’s valuable to attend a seminar or two that features agents and publishers describing the process — and hurdles — confronting the would-be published author. It’s also valuable to learn something about self-publishing before setting a foot on that path. But as someone who has taught writing courses — both at the community college and university level — and has written professionally in many commercial genres, I am extremely cynical about the value to the quality of one’s writing of spending time in how-to courses, seminars, workshops and retreats. They may be enjoyable while you’re attending them, but you rarely come away with something you couldn’t find in a how-to book from the library. They consume time and distract you from spending your time actually writing.

The way to write well is to read well… all your life. Read extensively and intensively, with an eye to structure, dialogue, pacing. Note what’s omitted as well as what’s included. If you really enjoy something you’ve read, read it again. More than once. Take it apart in your mind (or in a notebook) to see how it was done. Then try to do it yourself. At first you will be a copy cat. And then you will internalize what you’ve learned; it will become second nature — in the self-editing if not in the first draft. There are many parasitic industries out there, feeding off perceived markets for learning “how.” With writing, the primary “how” is “do.” Sit down every day and do it. And keep reading.

Other people’s blogs are also helpful, principally for the encouragement they offer that you’re not slogging away alone. Blogs by would-be writers who are clearly bad writers are also instructive, in another way. (“That’s awful. Have I been doing something like that? I’d better stop it, right now!”)

Sorry if I’ve stirred up a nest of worms here. I do understand that it may be extremely gratifying to spend, spend, spend on the “products” Julie has so well described. But the spenders should be entirely clear that they are only toeing the sand, not writing.

And, in case you’re interested, here’s my reply:

Nina, this is such an interesting – and well informed – perspective, thank you! I’ve enjoyed the writing courses I’ve participated in – three one-week courses in total. But the value for me has come in many different ways. I have learned, or reinforced, certain technical skills, but that’s perhaps the least of the experience. I’ve also been made to think differently about character and structure. Thence to the wider benefits: I’ve met authors and learned from their insights and experience; I’ve met other people with ambitions to write – and made very special friendships; I’ve built the confidence to try writing in the first place, and keep going when I thought I was losing my way, and I’ve tapped into an imagination I never realised I had. Those are the real benefits. Technique, as you rightly observe, can come from books – both ‘how to’ books, and the simple act of devouring and analysing as much good fiction as you can.

I wasn’t encouraging people to spend, spend, spend on writerly learning – only throwing light on the many available ‘products’. They do help you to think like a writer, but quality is variable and one must tread carefully to obtain good value. It’s easy to take refuge in the excuse that one still has more to learn, rather than to just get on and write, and learn by experience.

I hope you don’t mind, but I think so much of your comment, that I’d like to copy it into a full post – it deserves not to be missed.

Going Down

You thought it was finished? So did I. But the word-cull continues

scissors-editLast autumn, when I drew a line under my 6th or 7th redraft of Singled Out, I honestly thought it was finished; finished as far my neophyte novelist’s abilities would allow at least. But armed with some insightful observations and having taken a few months away from the words, things look different.

I’m around two-thirds of the way through yet another edit – the one I didn’t realise I needed. And here I am deleting not just words, but whole sentences, whole paragraphs too. Here I am turning a paragraph into a sentence and still… still… deleting adjectives and adverbs. Yes, the more you look, the more you find. It’s wordy Whack-a-Mole.

When I began submitting Singled Out to agents it stood at 97,600 words. This summer in response to feedback, I’ve added three new sections, perhaps a total of around 1,500 words. But the word-count is down to 94,000.

How did that happen?

I think, at last, I’ve begun to relinquish my grip on those favourite sections – those darlings – which have thus far had a free-pass from the editor’s pen; those (not so) clever turns of phrase that looked so… so… writerly when they went in; those extravagant why-use-one-word-when-twenty-will-do descriptive sections; and those parts of the story where I’ve failed to trust the reader to get what’s going on.

This is what you need distance for; to develop the ability – and willingness – to be dispassionate. At last I’m editing as if it wasn’t me but someone else who has written Singled Out. I can cull great chunks I couldn’t bear to part with before because, somehow, they don’t feel like mine any more.

Frustrating though it is to have not seen immediate success with submitting my manuscript, I can see why I’ve not made the cut (no pun intended). I don’t know if I’ll have done enough to see a positive outcome when I go back to agent submissions in a few weeks time – the odds are against me, after all. But I continue – in a perverse and yes, almost sadistic way – to draw satisfaction and even joy from the learning process.

At this point, I want to get Singled Out out there in one form or another – because I want to see the job finished. More than that, I’m now straining to get started on my next novel, the one where I think I can bring all my learnings into play and create something better and sharper – hopefully in somewhat less than four years.

“Thought Verbs” – Another side of “Show not Tell”

Thought Verbs Show Not TellAuthor and Journalist Chuck Palahniuk wrote this essay on “Thought Verbs” just over a year ago. It has been reposted many times, but, like me, you may have missed it. I recently came across it via a link which led to another link and another – you know how the internet works. It is excellent advice, for every writer seeking to master the “Show not Tell” challenge.

The link to what I believe is the original article is here, and the full piece is reproduced below, with every credit to the original essayist, Chuck Palahniuk.

In six seconds, you’ll hate me.

But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.

From this point forward – at least for the next half year – you may not use “thought” verbs.  These include:  Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.

The list should also include:  Loves and Hates.

And it should include:  Is and Has, but we’ll get to those, later.

Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write:  Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”

Thinking is abstract.  Knowing and believing are intangible.  Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing.  And loving and hating.

Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like:  “The mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave.  Never his.”

Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them.  Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.

Instead of saying:  “Adam knew Gwen liked him.”

You’ll have to say:  “Between classes, Gwen was always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it.  She’d roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume.  The combination lock would still be warm from her ass.  And the next break, Gwen would be leaned there, again.”

In short, no more short-cuts.  Only specific sensory detail: action, smell, taste, sound, and feeling.

Typically, writers use these “thought” verbs at the beginning of a paragraph  (In this form, you can call them “Thesis Statements” and I’ll rail against those, later)  In a way, they state the intention of the paragraph.  And what follows, illustrates them.

For example:

“Brenda knew she’d never make the deadline.  Traffic was backed up from the bridge, past the first eight or nine exits.  Her cell phone battery was dead.  At home, the dogs would need to go out, or there would be a mess to clean up.  Plus, she’d promised to water the plants for her neighbor…”

Do you see how the opening “thesis statement” steals the thunder of what follows?  Don’t do it.

If nothing else, cut the opening sentence and place it after all the others.  Better yet, transplant it and change it to:  Brenda would never make the deadline.

Thinking is abstract.  Knowing and believing are intangible.  Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing.  And loving and hating.

Don’t tell your reader:  “Lisa hated Tom.”

Instead, make your case like a lawyer in court, detail by detail.  Present each piece of evidence.  For example:

“During role call, in the breath after the teacher said Tom’s name, in that moment before he could answer, right then, Lisa would whisper-shout: ‘Butt Wipe,” just as Tom was saying, ‘Here’.”

One of the most-common mistakes that beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone.  Writing, you may be alone.  Reading, your audience may be alone.  But your character should spend very, very little time alone.  Because a solitary character starts thinking or worrying or wondering.

For example:  Waiting for the bus, Mark started to worry about how long the trip would take..”

A better break-down might be:  “The schedule said the bus would come by at noon, but Mark’s watch said it was already 11:57.  You could see all the way down the road, as far as the Mall, and not see a bus.  No doubt, the driver was parked at the turn-around, the far end of the line, taking a nap.  The driver was kicked back, asleep, and Mark was going to be late.  Or worse, the driver was drinking, and he’d pull up drunk and charge Mark seventy-five cents for death in a fiery traffic accident…”

A character alone must lapse into fantasy or memory, but even then you can’t use “thought” verbs or any of their abstract relatives.

Oh, and you can just forget about using the verbs forget and remember.

No more transitions such as:  “Wanda remember how Nelson used to brush her hair.”

Instead:  “Back in their sophomore year, Nelson used to brush her hair with smooth, long strokes of his hand.”

Again, Un-pack.  Don’t take short-cuts.

Better yet, get your character with another character, fast.  Get them together and get the action started.  Let their actions and words show their thoughts.  You — stay out of  their heads.

And while you’re avoiding “thought” verbs, be very wary about using the bland verbs “is” and “have.”

One of the most-common mistakes that beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone.

For example:

“Ann’s eyes are blue.”

“Ann has blue eyes.”

Versus:

“Ann coughed and waved one hand past her face, clearing the cigarette smoke from her eyes, blue eyes, before she smiled…”

Instead of bland “is” and “has” statements, try burying your details of what a character has or is, in actions or gestures.  At its most basic, this is showing your story instead of telling it.

And forever after, once you’ve learned to Un-pack your characters, you’ll hate the lazy writer who settles for:  “Jim sat beside the telephone, wondering why Amanda didn’t call.”

Please.  For now, hate me all you want, but don’t use “thought” verbs.  After Christmas, go crazy, but I’d bet money you won’t.

Author: Chuck Palahniuk (Aug 13)

Precision detail in a novel – not just any place, but this place

I’ve been asked to share how I capture a sense of place in my novel. For example, what research do I do, how do I take notes, are photographs involved, and so on. So here goes…

SINGLED OUT is set on a singles holiday on Turkey’s beautiful Lycian Coast. I’ve visited this area many times over the last 20 years and I love its striking landscape and laid-back, exotic atmosphere. Whilst my story is essentially a dark psychological one, I wanted the sense of place to be very strong; my intention is for the reader to feel as if they’re on the holiday with my characters.

This writer's notepad - illegible scrawl from Turkey, May 2013
This writer’s notepad: illegible scrawl, Turkey, May 2013

Last year after a gap of 6 years I returned to Turkey specifically to gather that sensory detail for my novel. Memories fade over the years, especially the minuscule details of sight, sound and smell which are essential to anchoring the setting or a scene in a novel precisely and bringing it to life for readers. I wanted to fill a notepad with images and sensory detail to inject into my story. I got more than I could possibly have expected from the experience, as I first wrote about in my post It Makes Sense:

I realised as I filled its pages, how inert ones memories of a place can become. It’s easy enough to pick up an old photograph and see what a raggedy coastline looks like, or a market, or an ancient ruin. But when you’re there, you smell the pine and the citrus, the sweat and cigarettes; you see the gnarly knuckles and the stained aprons; you hear the wail of the muezzin’s prayer and watch the sun radiate from the golden dome of a mosque; you feel the sting of perspiration as it trickles into your eye and savour sweet green peppers and succulent tomatoes under a canopy of twisted vines. Oh, I could go on… and on…

I don’t want you imagining my story is awash with descriptive detail at the expense of plot and character. But there are one or two places where I’ve gone to town a bit on the setting, using my photographs and notes to develop a strong sense of place. Of course these may all go, if and when a real editor gets to work on the draft. But for the time being, I’m getting away with it.

Ephesus

My characters take a trip to Ephesus, so I did too. I’d last been there 20 years ago and I imagined that whilst two thousand year old ruins are two thousand year old ruins, the tourist business of Ephesus and its surroundings must have changed over the years – and I was right.

I was fortunate to have a guide all to myself for the day and I explained to her the main purpose of my visit. I was able to wander at will, ask endless questions and take dozens of photographs. Knowing why I was there, she didn’t question that I photographed odd things; the stalls outside the entrance, the entrance barriers, other groups of tourists, odd rocks and stones, cats and trees, pavements and signposts, as well as those breathtaking ancient ruins.

Stalls at the entrance to Ephesus
Stalls at the entrance to Ephesus
The only shade there is at Ephesus
The only shade at Ephesus
Warm bodies and a cloudless sky at Ephesus
Warm bodies and a cloudless sky at Ephesus

I couldn’t easily take notes as we walked around the site, but I caught up as soon as we stopped for lunch; a combination of my guide’s historical knowledge, my sense of the place and how I’d felt as I walked its streets.  You think you’ll remember these things, but let me tell you, you won’t.  Notepads are a vital tool – however illegible (as mine often are), their pages will take you right back to a precise place or moment, months or even years later.

But I had to keep reminding myself, SINGLED OUT is a novel not a travel book. An earlier draft contained far too much historical detail from that Ephesus trip and much of it has since come out. It’s enough to have done the research and deployed elements of detail where they’re needed to enrich; but there’s no need to show off how much you know.

So you can see how it worked for me, here’s a paragraph from that fictional trip to Ephesus:

Around them tour guides spoke in English, French, German, Swedish and Japanese to visitors unbalanced by loaded backpacks, while others brandished sticks to aid their movement or umbrellas to shield them from the sun. They stopped randomly and without warning for photographs. At every point where Fatima drew the group close, James and Veronica listened with rapt attention – and Brenda rummaged in her bag for water, a fan, a facial spritz or a wad of tissues. All the while, the heat came at them not only from above, but from beneath their feet and all around. It rose in waves from the flagstone avenues and radiated off the columns and walls. Brenda was slow-roasting in the Ephesus noonday oven.

Market Day

Two of my characters browse a local market together one day. I’d gone to markets in Turkey before and had some lovely old photographs (from the days before digital). Then I went to the market in Fethiye on my trip last year, armed with my trusty notepad – and my eyes and nose. Here’s an excerpt which uses my recollections and notes from all those Turkish markets combined.

The area where the weekly market took place lay behind the shopping street and away from the beach. It would be generous to call it a marketplace, since for six days a week this area of gravel and clay lay fallow; carved here and there by tyre tracks from the few trucks that needed somewhere to turn around before speeding away.

On the seventh day, it teemed with life from before dawn until late afternoon. Farmers came from the villages and hamlets in the hills, their pick-ups laden with fresh produce of all shapes and mis-shapes, a riot of colour and a testament to the industry and enterprise out of sight of the tourist coastline. Traders moved from town to town, market day to market day, bringing truckloads of goods to sell; t-shirts and trousers, bags and belts, pashminas and pendants, sandals and sunhats all manufactured in anonymous factories far away from the coast or most likely in China. Packets of candy, nuts and aromatic spices sat alongside jars of glistening local honey and blocks of cheese; everything was available to buy from dusty trestle tables and rails, all under cover of flapping white awnings – giving the impression the whole market was a trading ship about to set sail.

The two women passed an enjoyable couple of hours wandering the length and breadth of the market. They flirted with the crusty, moustachioed farmers behind their piles of wooden boxes laden with curly runner beans, torpedo aubergines, red and white onions, peppers and courgettes, oranges, lemons, strawberries and giant watermelons; they breathed in the aromas of citronella and cinnamon, fruit teas and fresh herbs, beaten leather, crushed straw, workaday sweat and cigarettes; they bartered with stall-holders over beaded necklaces, embroidered purses and gaudily embellished flip-flops; they cooed over a pile of crates crammed with baby chicks, their fluffy down every shade from creamy gold-top through honey roast to dark chocolate brown, and they sympathised with a brace of rabbits whose fate was obvious and more immediate. Brenda stocked up on candied fruits and sugared almonds and Siobhan found a fake henna kit she couldn’t live without. Then, with carrier bags brimming with tourist trinkets, they made for the line of beachfront bars and the yellow awning, for lunch.

The Gulet Trip

Turkish Gulet - a fine sight, even without its sails
Turkish Gulet

My characters take an overnight trip on one of Turkey’s ubiquitous gulets. I’ve spent weeks at a time on gulets before – it’s a blissful experience, to bob about on the ocean for a few days with no shoes on and nothing to do but sunbathe and read books. This time I took a day trip to refresh my memories of the sights, sounds and odours. I took photographs of the coastline and odd corners of the boat. I noted the way the motion affected my balance, the sounds of the boat and the water, the smells coming up from the sea – and the kitchen; I registered what the sunlight did to the chrome, the woodwork and the sails. Here’s a snapshot of my impressions which made it into the story:

The deck-hands unrolled the jib over the bow and the sail on the second mast and high above them squally gusts took hold. The trio of sails ballooned with the strengthening wind of open water; they fought and whipped about, tugging at their fastenings, lifting and plunging the boat forward, cutting into the water and venting fine salty spray into the air and across the deck. The restaurant on the beach became a speck against a panorama of grey-green scrub and rocky slopes, the bay zoomed away into the distance. The industrial grinding of the diesel engine was replaced by a sublime, organic symphony; a blustery flapping of sails, the steady swish-swash of waves, the metallic pounding of the rigging and the cawing of a seabird. Breathless and eyes wide, Henry lay on his back staring up towards the tip of the mast and beyond into the cloudless sky. Surely life couldn’t get better than this.

Most of the detail from my scruffy notepads made it into the story one way or another – a few words here, a sentence there – which is mostly all you need. It’s only when you want to anchor the reader more specifically in a given place or moment, that it’s perhaps permissible to layer the detail a little more. But that’s just my feeling, and, as a novice and yet-to-be-published writer, I may find my layers of sights, sounds and smells are pared down in the final edit. So please don’t take my word for it that this is the right approach. It’s just the thing I did – whether it adds substance to my story, or gets in the way of the plot, someone with more experience than I may yet be the judge of this.

How to Hook an Agent Part Two – My Speed-Date with Destiny

I posted yesterday on my Top Five Takeaways from Bloomsbury Publishing’s How to Hook an Agent seminar. Today, I’m sharing what I learned from my agent one-to-one:

How to Hook an AgentThe last part of the day was my speed-date with destiny – the rarest of opportunities to discuss the pitch for my novel with someone who could, potentially, be in a position to bring it to market. In a perfect world.

In those few minutes I learned one particularly critical thing. I’ve thought hard about the genre of my novel – you can see how I rationalised it into the psychological suspense space in my post titled What’s My Genre here. What I didn’t realise was that as soon as I mention psychological suspense in my submission, agents are wont to make a connection with a few very high-profile and successful contemporary psychological thrillers, such as Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn or Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty.

The feedback I received was that if I were pitching a book likely to be compared to these, then I could be on to a loser, as it would have to be truly, spectacularly excellent to attract attention alongside these brilliantly crafted stories. And the likelihood of a debut novel even getting close to Gone Girl or Apple Tree Yard was remote.

I get that. I understand.

But… but… but… I’d never envisaged Singled Out to be an also-ran to these stories, not for a minute, M’Lud!  Apart from anything else I began writing my story long before either of these books was published. With a full-time freelance career to maintain, it took over three years to squeeze Singled Out from my keyboard. It’s a different kind of story too. There is a build-up of suspense, but no ‘thriller’ component and essentially, no twist-in-the-tail either – it’s just not that kind of a tale.

Would readers of these stupendous stories (both of which I thoroughly enjoyed) be interested in Singled Out? Possibly they would – if they enjoy stories about twisted, damaged and dangerous characters. But if they were led to expect another Gone Girl I fear they might be disappointed.

I’ve listened to presentations on a few occasions where agents have stressed that there’s no point in trying to hop on to a bandwagon – for example, the oft cited vampire bandwagon or more recently the 50 shades bandwagon.  Because apart from being an also-ran, you’re already too late – the parade is over. I hadn’t realised I might be viewed as having done this.  But now I can see the quagmire I’ve inadvertently stumbled into. So I’m rethinking how I pitch my grizzly psychological story to avoid any sudden-death comparisons which might prematurely consign Singled Out to the reject pile.  It’s enough of a challenge being an everyday would-be debut novelist; I don’t need to be hobbling my own chances.

As for the agent who enlightened me, I’m properly grateful for the insight, and I don’t think I would ever have got it without that one-to-one moment. This particular agent requested and now has my submission, and along with it the benefit of knowing I’m not trying to be the next Gillian Flynn, or the next anyone else for that matter.  Whether this makes a difference to their perception of my story, I’ll find out soon enough.

Talking of suspense then, I’m holding my breath.

How to Hook an Agent: Part One – My Top Five Takeaways

What I learned at Bloomsbury Publishing’s invaluable seminar last Saturday.

How to Hook an AgentLast Saturday I went along to Bloomsbury Publishing’s offices in London for a seminar entitled How to Hook an Agent. Along with 27 other budding writers I listened attentively to presentations given by four agents, enjoyed a delicious lunch whilst precariously perched at a small circular table, and then had the privilege of a speed networking one-to-one session with one of the agents, to seek specific help with my pitch for Singled Out.

It was a well run event, the ambience both professional and pleasantly informal. Listening to Real Live Agents explain what they liked to read in a submission and what excited and engaged them (and what turned them off), was enlightening. Had I heard some of it before? Yes. If you read around the various agency websites and countless other sources of advice, you get the broad picture. But the opportunity to hear the individual perspectives of four quite different agents was well worth the investment of time and money.

Without giving away everyone’s presentations, I thought I’d share a few of the observations that were most pertinent to me. So here are my Top Five Takeaways:

  1. Get people who aren’t family or friends to read your manuscript. Whilst they might do wonders for our egos, family and friends do not make the best critics. I’ve been thinking hard about this one since Saturday. My mentor read and critiqued a substantial proportion of my manuscript whilst we were working together. But the whole thing, beginning-to-end, has been read only by a handful of friends. I have to admit, I’ve fought shy of sharing Singled Out with anyone beyond my close circle. Mea culpa.
  2. A synopsis should describe who, what, where and when, but not why. Synopsis writing, as anyone who reads this blog regularly will know, is my personal bête noir. It’s harder by a mile than writing the actual novel. Most agents want no more than 1.5 pages of spaced A4 – that’s less than 750 words. The more you can leave out, the better – not only the why, but adverbs, adjectives, sub-plots and back-story. Easy then.
  3. One good way to craft a synopsis is to write the numbers 1-10 down the side of the page, then fill in the ten most important events in your story in chronological order. That beats a lot of the more complex advice I’ve seen around. Having stepped away from my various synopses in recent weeks, I gave my shortest version another going over using this structure and I have to say, I felt happier with it afterwards.
  4. Should you compare yourself with well-known novelists in your query letter? Interesting, this one, and I’ve been in two minds. Clearly there’s a risk it sounds pretentious or arrogant. So how do you help the agent to understand where you see your novel without saying you’re the next JK Rowling or Stephen King? Rather than saying, ‘I write like JK Rowling/Stephen King’ and risk being swatted from your perch, try saying, ‘my novel will appeal to readers who enjoy…’ or ‘my novel is aimed at a similar readership to…’, or even, ‘my novel might sit on the same shelves in the bookshop as…’
  5. Your book in a Tweet – this is a superb and scary exercise at the extreme end of honing your pitch. Can you distil the essence of your book down to the length of a single Tweet – 140 characters? I failed miserably in the limited time allowed. Later that evening I got to: Singles on holiday; sun, sea and… secrets; hedonism, mind-games and a boat. The truth hurts when bad stuff happens in a beautiful place. That’s just 138 characters even with the grammatically precise (for a Tweet) final full stop. Whether it’s the essence of Singled Out or not, may you all be the judges one day.

Check in again tomorrow for Part Two – my speed-date with destiny.

Rise and Shine

scissors-editI have committed one of the cardinal sins of novel-writing.  It’s a trap which many neophyte novelists fall into, although when first I fell into it, I wasn’t aware of this.

My story begins with not just one, but two characters waking up.

Actually, that’s not entirely true.  My story begins with a prologue – albeit a short one, at around 350 words. But guess what? That’s another cardinal sin.

Never start your story with a prologue.  Or someone waking up.

I’m busted.

I wonder if these faux-pas explain the steady trickle of rejection emails. Each one is perfectly courteous and proclaims, using remarkably similar wording, that the agent in question does not feel passionate enough about my novel, to invest the time and effort required to launch a debut.  I understand. In a world where countless hopeful authors are chasing a finite and modest number of agents, my novel is not standing out.

But I wonder, is this because it has a prologue?  Is it because it starts with someone waking up?  Are those agents I’ve approached so far not getting past those two cardinal sins?  I don’t know whether they’re even reading beyond those first few pages.  Maybe, by the time my two characters have exited their respective hotel rooms and met in the corridor, I’ve already lost them.

For every rule there are exceptions.  One could list dozens of novels which begin with a prologue.  I’m reading one at the moment in fact, Dominion by C J Sansom.  I’ll bet there are dozens of novels which begin with a waking-up moment too. But if you’re a first-timer, a would-be, a novice… you break the rules at your peril.

You might argue I’m being naive, or misguided and put it down to my lack of experience, but I believe the wakey-uppy moment in Singled Out is important.  The reader learns things about both characters in those first few pages, including the roots of their respective frailties.  But perhaps it would go down better if I found a way to impart those essential attributes later in the narrative.

I want to keep the prologue, I’m afraid, but it’s so short I can’t believe that this alone would prompt the casting-aside of my manuscript. But if I get rid of the wake-up call and the early-riser breakfast, would it make Singled Out more buoyant?  Would this be enough to make it rise above the slush pile?

I don’t know if that’s the answer, whether it will bring agents flocking to my door (or popping up in my inbox at least). But I’m beginning to think, if I don’t try it, I might never know.

How can this be?

Synopsis crisis 1Submissions to agents require that you send a sample of your novel.  Typically this is described as sample chapters (usually three) or 10,000 words.  Often you’re told to conclude your sample at a sensible end point, rather than get too hung up on precise word-count.

My novel, Singled Out, is divided into eight days (a one week holiday, see?).  Each day is divided into between 8 and 12 individual segments, each segment written from the point of view (POV) of one of three main characters.  I realise a day in this construction is too long to count as a chapter, but the individual segments are also too short.  Day One is around 12,000 words and to my mind marks a sensible end point – so that’s what I’ve been sending as my sample.  I figure if I’ve failed to excite an agent, it will be well before that 12,000 word mark and they’ll simply not read to the end.  If I’ve excited them, a few extra words are unlikely to put them off.  Hopefully.

However… one of the agents I’m currently keen to tempt with Singled Out specifies three chapters as the sample length, but then goes on to make the point that this limit should be strictly adhered to.  So yesterday, I was reviewing my sample document, to create a shorter version for this particular submission.

And on the first page – the very first page – I found a typo.

I know why this is.  This particular section has been in the past tense, then in the present tense, then in the past tense again (and perhaps even back and forth another couple of times – I forget). Somewhere in the transition from ‘He chose’ through ‘He chooses’ and back to ‘He chose’ again, I left a verb in the wrong tense.

I could have wept.

It seemed prudent, after approximately 20 minutes of swearing, cursing, throwing stuff around, stomping, stamping and kicking the cat (I lie – I don’t have one), to use the opportunity to review the whole sample segment, just in case anything else had slipped through in those first 10,000 words.  So I read it very, very slowly.  I found a few dozen more words I could do without, which was a plus.

But then I found another typo.

The error was not in a word, but in its absence – it was a missing word.  I’d probably read right through that invisible word two or three dozen times, failing and failing again, to notice its nonexistence.

Just in case you’re wondering how I’m dealing with this catastrophe of care and diligence, here it is. Yesterday evening I prowled my kitchen for comfort food. There wasn’t much, because I’m being very good lately; vegetables don’t even nearly qualify.  I managed to find three Rich Tea biscuits (stale), which I covered in butter and the dregs from a bottle of salted caramel sauce (Christmas leftover).  Thence to a restive night – I gave in to the TV and a repeat of The Jeremy Kyle Show at 5:15am. Today finds me curled up on the armchair in the corner of my office, rocking from side to side, cuddling a cushion and snivelling into a Kleenex.  It’s too early for alcohol, but I fear this may feature as the day advances.

By the way – there’s a lesson.  Now I understand what people mean when they say the final level of edit should actually be to read your novel backwards, word, by word, by word.