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Monday, 27 October 2014

Writing A Book In A Month, Part One

For thousands of writers all over the world, November means NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. The challenge is to start work on a novel on 1st November, with a goal of reaching a 50,000 word count by midnight on November 30th. 

If you’ve ever thought of writing a novel, NaNoWriMo is a great place to start. That unbreakable, unmistakeable deadline, coupled with a helpful website dedicated to this non-profit making enterprise, is a great way to turn ideas into words. In 2013, over 310,000 participants from all over the world made the leap from wishing to writing.  Sign up like they did, and you can get guidance, support, hints, and tips from professional writers and experienced participants via forums, email alerts and local groups. 

I'm coming in late to this game, and for a very special reason. My published novels (you can see them all here), whether historical or contemporary, come under the romantic fiction banner. I've always wanted to try something different, but I enjoy working in my familiar genres so I've never got around to branching out. My working life has always been very structured, but after attending a couple of RNA workshops (details here) I discovered the wonders of a free-form approach. Getting out of my writing comfort zone turned out to be less scary and more productive than I'd imagined.

November this year just happened to coincide with a gap in my work schedule, so last Monday I signed up for NaNoWriMo 2014. The process was easy. The prospect is chilling. All (!) you have to do is commit to writing a first draft of 50,000 words for your story, before the 30 November deadline. That works out at around 1,670 words per day. Every day. Once you’ve signed up, you start writing on November 1st. Each day, you log in to the NaNoWriMo site and update your word count on the header menu. It’s a stark measurement of your progress. I get stressed about reaching my usual10,000 word per week target as it is. Seeing my figures flagged up like that will really pile on the pressure. 

Everyone who reaches the 50,000 word target is a winner. From 20th November onwards, you can paste your completed novel into the NaNoWriMo site.  Once validated, you can apply for your winner's badge (the NaNoWriMo site allows you to scramble your text, so you don’t need to worry about security).

NaNoWriMo helps writers in all sorts of ways. There are forums where you can get support and inspiration from other sufferers (sorry, writers). There's even a section where you can pick up orphan plots, characters or settings suggested by other people, and generously offered to anyone who's stuck. The whole site is a well of inspiration, and a hub for networking. 

I’ve had a particular Alpha male living inside my head for quite a while, but he felt too damaged to be the hero of a classic romance. I knew he’d be locked away for a life sentence unless I found some way to free him on parole. Then my local chapter of the Romantic Novelists’ Association held a workshop where we each had to submit the first ten pages of a novel. These would be reviewed by all the other workshop members.  It felt like the right place to give him an airing, so I let my mind freewheel around the idea for a few days. In that time, my damaged hero solidified into a guy called Josh with a “dangerous" dog and a bad attitude. He met an anti-heroine, Sophia, whose backstory is even darker than his own. Then I sat down at the computer and fooled around with the pair of them until I had a sample long enough to submit to the workshop. 

The other writers thought my new project had a future, but a series of tight deadlines meant Inever got a chance to do anything more with those first ten pages. 

Luckily, I finished my current Work In Progress, His Majesty’s Secret Passion, in time to sign up for NaNoWriMo 2014. It's given me a concrete reason to devote one whole month to my new project. I’m raring to go, if a bit apprehensive. On the plus side, I’ve already got the first ten pages of my new novel, a folder full of character outlines and a general idea of what’s going to happen, to whom, and how.  On the minus side, typing “The End” seems a long way over the horizon, and it’ll be uphill all the way. 

I’ve cleared my diary, sharpened my pencils, and told the family I might be taking a holiday from the kitchen. If the words don’t come, we'll be living out of the freezer until December 1st.

Keep tabs on my progress by subscribing to my newsletter—just click on the subscribe button top right, or drop me a line at christinahollis(at)hotmail.co.uk.

Are you going to join NaNoWriMo 2014?

Friday, 10 October 2014

A Covering Letter To Cover You With Glory...

By Antonio Litterio
You've heard of "show, don't tell"? In your covering letter, you've got to "sell, not tell".  Imagine you're surfing the net to check out holiday sites while your boss's back is turned. You've only got a few seconds, so it's the sites where one glance tells you all you want to know that get bookmarked, isn't it? The same goes for the letter you send with your manuscript when it's sent to an agent or publisher.

That letter is your landing page. It's your shop window, where you entice an overworked reader to stop and take a second, and maybe a third, look. Make it sleek, professional, uncluttered, and easy to understand. Writing for publication is a business, so make your communications businesslike. Keep it to one side of A4, and don't write it by hand. Get it printed.

ADDRESS:
Direct it to the right firm, and if possible, a named person.  This shows you've done your research, rather than copying-in multiple agents and publishers with a scatter-gun approach.

OPENING PARAGRAPH:
Tell them who you are, and give details of any relevant publishing history you might have. Be brief, and don't be afraid to blow your own trumpet, but beware. What's the first thing you do when you discover a new person? That's right, you check them out on Google. The writing industry is no different. If the Dalai Lama doesn't really ring you for advice each morning, your credibility will go the same way as your chances of reaching nirvana.

Include the length and genre of your book, the market you're targetting, and why you're the best person to tell this story. Explain why you're writing to them in particular. "The MegaPublisher website names you as the commissioning editor in charge of contemporary romantic fiction," shows you've read up on them. Make sure you've checked out their requirements, too. List what you're sending, which should ideally be no more than a synopsis, your manuscript and return postage if you're sending it via the postal service.

YOUR ELEVATOR PITCH:
This is the essence of your story, distilled into no more than a sentence or two. A synopsis is the proper place for full details of your story (you can find out how how to write the perfect one here).  Your covering letter must major in facts, to plant seeds of curiosity about your fiction. Cultivating an overworked editor's need to find out more about your work will stop them moving on to the next manuscript in their inbox.

YOUR FLOURISH:
Tell them why you write and for Pete's sake, be original. We all have "a compulsion". None of us "can help ourselves". Sad sacks that we writers are, we all "just have to write" and "can't go a day without doing it". Imagine the excitement of an editor who's read a million of those tired old trills when they come across something like "My sense of injustice provoked me to write this story," or "Solitary confinement after my conviction as a rogue trader left me with time to fill, so here's the inside track on pork belly futures," They'll dance with joy—as long as you don't go on to blow it all by claiming the Dalai Lama got you released.
Unless it's true, of course.

DON'T:
Wreck your chances by telling them it's a work of genius, you're the next E L James and you'll be ringing them in a week's time to arrange a date and time to sign your contract. They're much better qualified to make decisions about things like that than you are.

AND FINALLY:
It's not only self-pubbers who have to market their own books these days. Mainstream publishers expect a team effort. They have a lot invested in their authors, so everyone has to work hard at promoting their books. An unknown who shows they've got a good grasp of the marketing basics by presenting a faultless covering letter stands a much better chance of getting their manuscript read.

Can you condense your favourite classic book down into the one or two sentences of an elevator pitch?

Friday, 3 October 2014

Write The Perfect Synopsis...

By Antonio Litterio
The perfect synopsis is a single page of description to tempt an editor to read the sample of work you've sent with it. Publishers are so busy, unless your synopsis grabs their attention straight away and won't let go, they won't bother looking any further. They don't have time. Your manuscript's file will be deleted without being opened if it was sent by email, or shredded if you sent a physical copy but didn't include return postage. To give yourself the best chance of getting readers to see Chapter One, read on to find out what to include in a perfect synopsis–and what to leave out.

Use a standard font, in a size that makes it easy to read. Times New Roman, 12-point is ideal. DON'T reduce the font size any more than that. If it's difficult to read, your editor won't bother. Include your email address and the word "SYNOPSIS" to the header or footer, so your work can be easily identified.

Single-spacing (rather than the double-spacing used for your manuscript) means even a complicated synopsis can be squeezed into a couple of pages. That's the absolute maximum these days. If a story can't be explained in under two sides of A4, you've got problems. There's no hope of your editor reading further, or looking at your full manuscript. Wikipedia has nailed the entire plot and character developments of J R R Tolkien's enormous Lord of The Rings saga in 1,600 words. On my WP package, that's two A4 pages plus a few lines. Chances are you'll be able to make the synopsis of your own work a lot shorter than that.


A synopsis must sell your work and your writing style. It has to encourage agents and publishers to pick up your complete manuscript and read it. That’s something they won’t bother to do unless you convince them–fast–it’s worth their while. 

In the first line of your synopsis, give your contact details, the word count, and a reminder of the genre or line you're aiming for. Full details of your intended market should have been included in your covering letter, but you still need to make sure the right person's reading your work.

Concentrate on selling your story, major characters and themes while giving a flavour of your writing skill. Take a lot of time and effort to distil your work down into its most interesting and vital points. Remember, great thinkers such as Blaise Pascal and George Bernard Shaw have all apologised for writing long letters by saying they "didn’t have time to write a short one". 

Write in the present tense. Outline the most important plot points in the order they happen, and why. Include details of your characters’ development as it happens through your book, and the reasons for their inner and external conflicts. A synopsis isn't the place for riddles, cliffhangers, or hooks. Your potential editor can't afford to wonder what happens next. They must know.

Study the cover text and reviews of recently-published books in your genre. When something entices you to read the rest of the book, that’s exactly the type of writing which will make anyone reading your synopsis hungry for more. Never copy anybody else's work, but follow their example to produce a tempting result.

Don’t bother including details that don’t influence the plot. You may have spent hours deciding whether to give your heroine blue eyes or brown, or whether your hero likes cats. That's vital background detail when you’re building your story world, but an editor doesn’t need to know any of it. If your heroine must wear contacts to disguise her appearance, or an allergy to fur makes your hero sneeze when he's trying to hide from the villain, that's fine. Otherwise, leave it all out. 

If you’re submitting by mail, make sure you send everything in one envelope: return postage, your synopsis, cv and covering letter as well as your manuscript. Make sure it’s all cross-referenced, and includes your contact details. Busy publishing house won’t have time to marry up items that get posted separately, but they’ll be grateful for clear labelling on anything that’s accidentally separated in-house.

With all the components of your perfect synopsis in place, tighten up your prose as much as possible. Then go through your manuscript and make sure all the promise and talent you've shown in your synopsis is reflected in your text. Once it's perfect, it'll be time to target your submission. But that's another story...

For more hints and tips on writing (and cooking, beekeeping, gardening and eating cake...) sign up for my newsletter by mailing me at christinahollis(at)hotmail.co.uk, replacing the (at) with @ and putting "newsletter" in the subject line. Subscribers get a free copy of my Tipsheet For The Career Writer.