Thursday, 31 March 2016

X is for...X rated (or not?) by Annie Burrows

On the first Friday of every month, Novelista Annie Burrows has been sharing a very personal view of what it is like to be a writer. And is dealing with themes in alphabetical order. This month, she's reached X...

Last month, I asked what I should write about when I got to x, and several people suggested x rated.

I don't think I actually write x rated stuff, to be honest. In my mind, an x rating means erotica. And although I do write some steamy scenes, my main focus is on what goes on inside the heroine's head and heart, not the hero's bedroom.

It's not that I shy away from writing love scenes. I write about people falling in love, and a big part of that process involves sexual attraction. If I didn't include that part of my heroine's journey to her happy ever after, I would feel as if I was leaving out a huge part of her story. But that is what it is - just a part of her story. Sometimes the fact that the hero and heroine make love is an essential part of the storyline, but sometimes it just isn't.

Because, during the regency period, when my stories are set, single people didn't have the sexual freedom we enjoy today. There was a stricter moral code in place, and harsher punishments for women who didn't stick to those rules. Men sometimes had to make amends by marrying the woman they'd slept with, but by and large, it was the women left with the babies, the women who bore the brunt of society's disapproval, and the children who were left with the tag of bastardy.

Of course, if you were wealthy, there were ways round the rules that bound everyone else. Royal bastards were often given titles and lands. Girls from wealthy families who fell pregnant before marriage might be sent away to remote estates for a while, the child given to a humble family who'd receive wages for bringing it up, and the girl subsequently married off to someone who would be prepared to accept compensation for his bride's lack of purity. She wouldn't perhaps pay such a high price for having sex outside marriage, but she would still have a "stain" on her reputation - if anyone were to find out.

However, this means that my heroes and heroines are going to have to think very carefully about sleeping with each other before marriage. Which in turn means I have to think very carefully about how far to let them go if they aren't married. I do aim for historical accuracy, you see, and often I just can't imagine a scenario in which an unmarried couple would leap into bed with each other.

Which means that many of my books end up being what I would describe as "courtship" books. The couple might feel very attracted to each other, they may do a lot of flirting, but they won't fully consummate their relationship until after they are married. Or at least on the verge of marriage. That isn't to say there are no scenes where the hero tries to go as far as he dares. Which makes the ultimate scene, where he can finally make the heroine completely his, all the more satisfying (I hope!)

However, occasionally, I do write what I call "honeymoon" books. And the way I manage to do this is by having my protagonists marry at the outset, thinking they are going into a convenient marriage, and then finding they can't keep their hands off each other. And, because they're married, they don't have to. In fact, they tend to solve a lot of their issues in the bedroom (just like in real life?)

This means that my books don't all have the same level of heat. My 2015 Christmas book, for example, (The Captain's Christmas Bride) started with a girl accidentally seducing a stranger and having to marry him. And him believing that the only thing they have going for them is sexual compatibility. (You can imagine how that goes!)

In contrast, in the novella which is going to be out for Christmas in 2016 my hero and heroine don't get up to anything more than heated glances and one scorching kiss. It just wouldn't have been plausible for people in their situation, you see.

OK - now, here's a teaser for you. Do you think you can guess the level of heat of the books I've written from the covers I've posted in this blog?

Since the first two covers are both of the same book, I would say it's not likely!

So - what do you think my next book, "In Bed with The Duke" will be, from looking at its cover? Courtship book, or honeymoon book?

For more clues - you can read the blurb here

And you can read the opening chapter here 

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

How NOT To Submit To An Agent - Reporting Back from York LitFest by Sophie Claire

I’m always keen to attend literary courses and conferences, but this panel discussion looked particularly interesting –  and it didn’t disappoint! 

Part of York Lit Fest, ‘How NOT To Submit To An Agent’ was an event run by the Writers & Artists and, contrary to the rather negative title, it featured a very positive and encouraging panel discussion with literary agents Jo Unwin, Sam Copeland and Sallyanne Sweeney.

Jo Unwin, Sam Copeland, Sallyanne Sweeney
Sam Copeland began by explaining what an agent’s role involves:

Firstly, editorial input. An agent works closely with his author to get the manuscript as perfect as possible. Once this is done, he then sends a pitch letter to the first round of publishers (usually between 8 and 10). If he gets an offer, then he contacts the other editors to let them know (the ideal scenario is to get lots of interest and competition for the book). Then, once an offer is accepted, negotiations begin on the contract. This can take between 2 days and 9 months(!) and the agent’s job at this stage is to ensure his author gets the best terms possible.
But an agent does much more than just negotiate book deals. He also helps his authors plan their careers, brainstorm new ideas, he serves as a sounding board and keeps authors aware of changing trends in the publishing industry. He also deals with publicity, reviews, press enquiries: the list goes on. Crucially, he mediates between authors and their publishers.

Sallyanne Sweeney then gave advice on approaching agents:

Most agencies have a website. Follow their guidelines! (They all vary a little, so give them exactly what they ask for).
Use the Writers & Artists Yearbook or the online service, Agenthunter, to find the right agents for you. Follow agents on Twitter to keep up-to-date with news, but do not pitch to them via Twitter – that’s a big no no!
Query ten agents at a time and make sure they represent your genre. Always address your submission to an individual, and update them if you get interest elsewhere.

Jo Unwin gave us tips for submitting to an agent:

Jo receives 8000 submissions per year. In 2015 she took on 5 authors, and that was a good year. Depressing, I know (but don’t be too disheartened - I'll explain in a moment). Given these statistics, it’s imperative that your submission stands out from the rest!

How NOT to write a query letter
Submission letter

We were given examples of a good query letter, and of a poor one (see left).
Show you’ve done your research about the agent and are certain they are a good match for you (e.g. look at their existing authors). Although it's depressing to learn that your query may be one of 8000, Jo reassured us that by writing a professional letter and abiding by the agent’s guidelines, you considerably increase your chances of being noticed.

Make clear what your book is about and where it fits in the market (ie the genre and/or similar authors). You also need a strong elevator pitch. This is crucial and it's used throughout the selling process, from pitching to publishers to, ultimately, persuading the customer to buy the book. 
It needs to intrigue. And, as with your opening page, it’s worth taking the time to hone this until it’s as good as you can get it.

Jo read out short descriptions of famous books (taken from Amazon – look them up, was her advice) such as Gone Girl, Life of Pi and One Day. The best ones could be condensed into one line. 

For example:

‘Memories define us. So what if you lost yours every time you went to sleep?’
(Before I Go To Sleep, SJ Watson)

We, the audience, were then invited to test our one-sentence pitches on the panel. (No, I wasn’t brave enough – wish I had been!) They gave constructive feedback, mostly about keeping it simple and clear with an element of intrigue.


Don’t worry too much about the synopsis, was the general message. It is necessary to show that the story is complete, but no one is rejected on the basis of their synopsis. Stick to one or two pages maximum, and include the characters, the setting and the plot’s conclusion – don’t leave it hanging as you would for a blurb.

Opening Chapters

In contrast to the synopsis, make sure your opening page is as polished as possible! Your submission hinges on this and the agents agreed that in 50-75% of cases, they don’t read past the first page of a submission.

They gave us some Do’s and Don’t’s for the opening paragraph:

Do’s: surprise, quirky, confidence, a clear voice, attention-grabbing, atmosphere, emotional connection with the main character, beautiful writing.

Don’t’s: describe a character waking up, describe the weather, a dream, flashback, a character looking at their reflection in the mirror, too many characters all at once, telling not showing, overly florid language, info dump.

Finally, the panel wrapped up with their current wishlists:

Sam would love to receive anything outstanding.
Sallyanne would like anything she can get excited about, or a gorgeous YA love story.
Jo said she never knows what she’s looking for until she finds it!

Sophie Claire's d├ębut novel, Her Forget-Me-Not Ex, is available from Amazon

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Writing: Getting Serious by Louise Marley

I've always liked the idea of New Year's Resolutions. That chance to reinvent yourself every year, like the kind of books I read as a teenager: neglected female completely transforms into the belle of the ball with the help of a few mice, a pumpkin and - oh yes, a fairy godmother. Funny how these kind of stories always involve someone else coming to the rescue. I'm a proactive kind of person myself. If I'd been Cinderella, it would have been more a case of "B***** the Fairy Godmother, get me a pumpkin and I'll do it myself."

You see, as much as I love watching TV shows like The X Factor, there's always one thing guaranteed to infuriate me: whenever a contestant says something like, "I really want this, I've wanted it my whole life." OK, so they've really 'wanted' a singing career but they've never done anything about it? Never had singing lessons, or written a song, or formed a band, or tried to set up a few gigs? Basically, they've been sitting around waiting for a fairy godmother (Simon Cowell?) to come to the rescue.

Can you see where I'm going with this?

If your New Year's Resolution was to write a book, or maybe you've already written a book and you want to get it published, what have you done about it? Anything? Anything at all? Scribbled a few notes? Fantasised about the hot actor you'd like to play your hero in the movie adaptation? Stuck a pin in the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook and queried a few random agents? Enjoyed a few daydreams about the glamorous life you're going to lead as a full-time author? (And that's a whole other blog post, trust me.) If you want to be a writer badly enough, I'm afraid you're going to have to get serious about it.

Understand that you'll to have to make sacrifices. Not the dancing-naked-in-the-moonlight-and-endangering-defenceless-chickens sacrifice, but the kind that involves the most precious thing of all: your time. For example, if you know you only have an hour a day to write, then write - don't waste that time faffing about on social media.

Perfect your craft. There are hundreds of books about writing (my favourite is Stephen King's On Writing). Or take a creative writing course and, once you've written your novel, pay to have it professionally critiqued before sending it out to an agent/publisher. Although I still feel the best, easiest and most fun way to learn how to write fiction is to read lots of it. It's not expensive. You can borrow books for free from your local library and there are always deals to be had on ebooks. If you feel you don't have the time to read, think about how you spend the time you do have. Sacrifices, remember? No one lies on their death bed wishing they'd spent more time on social media.

Having said that, social media is an effective tool for writers, but only when used in the right way. Unless you are already published, forget about all the things you've heard about creating a 'brand' and setting up a 'platform'. The most important thing is to be social; you'll get far more out of it. Make friends with fellow writers, new and established. Follow people in the industry, such as agents and publishers - but don't expect them to follow you back, and definitely don't pitch your novel unless invited to do so. Most publishers are great at posting about deals on books and will have competitions to win signed copies from your favourite authors. Some publishers have blogs where they post writing tips from their editors, tell you when they are open for submissions and what they are looking for, as well as running writing competitions to win a book contract.

Talking of which, don't overlook those writing competitions - that's how I got my first book deal - and I didn't even win. And, if you can afford it, attend writers' conferences and literary festivals. Editors and agents are less likely to ignore a submission if it's come from someone they remember (in a good way!) from a workshop or a one-to-one meeting at a writers' conference. But if you're not lucky enough to bag a one-to-one, don't despair. Sometimes you can learn more from attending an industry panel event, and listening to writers and editors talking about the current market - what's popular and what's out of fashion. You'll have the opportunity to ask relevant questions and learn more than if you had pinned all your hopes on a one-to-one where you might have either targeted the wrong agent/editor, belatedly realised your submission is not polished enough, or had plain nerves just get the better of you. Early on in my career I found myself sitting on a sunny bench at a writers' conference, drinking coffee and chatting about trends in fiction with a commissioning editor. I got far more out of that than if I'd tried to pitch her my book.

With fellow Novelista
Trisha Ashley
No one understands a writer like another writer. Try joining a writers' group, club or societyThe Romantic Novelists' Association accepts unpublished authors under its New Writers' Scheme. Alternatively, find out if there are any writers' groups meeting in your area and, if not, why not start one? The Novelistas came about because Trisha Ashley moved to North Wales and put out a request asking if other local writers would like to meet up. Our group has now been going for almost fifteen years.

Compared to when I first started out, there are now so many great opportunities for writers. Don't waste time waiting for that fairy godmother or daydreaming about success. If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you have to start taking your writing seriously.

And no one can do that but you.

Louise Marley writes romantic comedy and romantic suspense, and is a creative writing tutor with Writing Magazine. 

Her most recent book is Something Wicked.



Related Posts:

W is for Writing Groups by Annie Burrows
T is for Time Management by Annie Burrows
The RNA Conference & Industry Day (2015) by Sophie Claire
Pitching to Agents & Publishers at the RNA Conference (2014) by Sophie Claire
How NOT to Submit to a Literary Agent (York LitFest 2016) by Sophie Claire

All pictures, copyright: Louise Marley
Except for girl in party dress, copyright: Fotolia 

Friday, 4 March 2016

W is for...Writers' Groups by Annie Burrows

On the first Friday of every month, Novelista Annie Burrows has been sharing a very personal view of what it is like to be a writer.  And is dealing with themes in alphabetical order.  This month, she's reached W...which she has decided should stand for Writer's groups.

Writing can be a very insular occupation.  I do spend a lot of time shut away in my study, writing down the adventures of my imaginary friends.  But one thing I learned fairly early on is the benefit of connecting with other writers, either online or in real life.

Shortly before I landed my first publishing contract, I'd decided that if I got another rejection I was going to join the Romantic Novelist's Association so that I could send my manuscript in to their New Writer's Scheme for critique.  I really felt I needed someone to read one of my stories and tell me why I was getting constant rejections, and, for a very reasonable fee, that is what the New Writer's Scheme provides.  Only then I got an acceptance instead.  So I joined as a full member and went along to my first local meeting.

It was wonderful to walk into a room full of like-minded people, and know I could talk about writing with people who would totally get what I was on about.  I made my first writing friends through the RNA, and also picked up nuggets of useful advice for UK based authors, such as that wonderful institution of PLR (Public Lending Right).  Basically, every time someone borrows my book from a UK library, I can get a few pence providing I've registered that book in the scheme.
And that is what writer's groups provide - not only support and friendships, but the exchange of knowledge.

Through friends I met at the RNA, I joined the group who later became the Novelistas.  Our meetings usually take the form of a round robin, over a pub lunch, so that each of us can share where we're up to.  Between us there is such a wealth of experience in the publishing industry that no matter what the topic brought to the table - from difficult edits to choosing an agent - there will be someone amongst us with valuable advice.  Or at the very least an opinion!  And if we have something special to celebrate, like a new book publication, there's very often cake.

As a writer for Mills & Boon, I've also joined the Association of Mills & Boon Authors (known as AMBA).  We have an online forum where we can share industry news and chat, and meet up once a year for a lovely lunch in a swanky location in London.  Since many of the members also belong to the RNA, that meeting takes place the day after the RNA a.g.m. so that people who live a long way from London can make an overnight stop and attend both meetings.

As I write historical romance for Harlequin Mills & Boon I've also joined an online chapter specifically for writers of Historical romance.  They are a really knowledgeable and talented bunch of ladies.  It doesn't matter what the question anyone asks, someone is bound to know the answer, or be able to point to a research resource where we can find the answer.  I have found research so much easier since getting in contact with the Harlequin Hussies (as we call ourselves), as there is always someone who knows exactly where I can find the specific historical detail I want to get right. Because the romance market is so big in America, I recently joined the RWA (Romance Writers of America).  Although I have only managed to get to two conferences, they both really opened my eyes to the way things are done in the States.


 Plus, I got to meet up with the Hussies over breakfast.

And got interviewed by a film crew during a book signing.  You can watch the video here.

Romance is big business over there, and writers of romance take their careers very seriously.  The RWA magazine (which I get online) contains a mine of useful information about the craft and business of writing romance, which I can't wait to devour monthly as it drops into my inbox.

And finally, through the RNA, I learned the importance of joining the Society of Authors.  This is an organization for UK based authors of both fiction and non-fiction.  They provide things like tax advice, legal protection, and will look over contracts before an author signs anything that might be detrimental to their rights.

So, I've gone from being a bit of a hermit, to someone who has plenty of friends, both real and virtual - all from joining writing groups.

Annie's next book, "In Bed with the Duke" will be released in May, from Harlequin Mills and Boon.  It is available for pre-order from Amazon.

Now she is wondering what on earth to write for next month's blog.  X is for...?

Any ideas?