Tag Archives: author inspiration

A. M. Howell on the highs and lows of the submission process and her journey to publication

In case you misseAM Howelld it (if you’re living under a rock, or have become a hermit, or get all your news delivered by snail), last week was the Frankfurt Book Fair. It’s where everyone announces their big books, and it’s easy to get lost in the buzzy deal headlines and general excitement. And that news is great – but it isn’t necessarily normal.

What we don’t talk about is how many titles don’t get published, or how long it can take agents to find a home for their authors’ books. Publishing is an industry peppered with failures and it’s safe to assume that every single author out there will have faced rejection at some point in their careers.  

Someone who knows this better than most is middle-grade author A. M. Howell. In this week’s post, A. M. Howell gives a brave and honest account of her experiences submitting to agents and of her sometimes difficult journey to publication, as well as some invaluable advice for aspiring authors.

I often think back to summer 2015 when my internet search history mostly consisted of terms like ‘how to get an agent’ and ‘my journey to publication’. I picked up quite a few tips when I was submitting my first book to agents, and since then, and thought it might be helpful to share them, as well as talk a little about my own (quite lengthy!) route to publication.

It’s really tempting to start submitting to agents as soon as you’ve written those magic words ‘The End’ on your manuscript. But it can be really helpful to put your book aside for a few weeks and then re-read with fresh eyes. You may find ways to tighten that tricky ending, develop a character a little more or correct some annoying typos, all things that will help make your story shine even brighter before it goes hurtling out into the world.

Buy or borrow a copy of the latest edition of the Writers and Artists Handbook. It contains a wealth of information on literary agencies and the types of manuscripts they accept. I created a spreadsheet of my top twenty ‘dream agents’ then also visited the individual agency websites to see what was required for submission – normally a full synopsis (detailing the ending), the first few chapters of the book, along with a covering letter.

Do your research and spend some time tailoring your submission – a little personalisation can make you stand out from the crowd. If an agent tweets that they are looking for a comedy about unicorns, and that is what you have written, then you can mention that in your covering letter!

As hard as it may be, try and prepare yourself for some straight rejections. I don’t know a single author who hasn’t received some. It’s natural to be upset, and by all means rant and rave internally, but try and resist firing off an email to the agent saying they are missing out on the next big thing. Agents do, of course, know other agents and word is likely to get around! Focus your efforts on taking on board any feedback you get, grit your teeth and send off another submission.

Many writers and authors I know have had their first book rejected by agents and/or publishers. Try not to be disheartened. If you have received positive feedback it might be worth re-writing. But the best thing might be to start something new. Don’t view that book as wasted work though, as every word you type helps to hone your skills as a writer.

If you do get a full read request from an agent it is time to celebrate! If this is followed up with an offer of representation, your instinct may be to accept immediately and go and eat lots and lots of cake. But perhaps take some time to consider if this agent is good fit for you and your book. When I began submitting my first book, I got some straight rejections, then one agent asked if we could meet. She offered to represent me and I was over the moon, but when we met there was something that just didn’t quite click.

I chased up the other agents who were still reading the full manuscript and then Clare Wallace from The Darley Anderson Children’s Book Agency, an agent at the very top of my wish list, asked if we could chat. We shared the same vision for the book and I didn’t hesitate in saying yes when she offered to represent me.

Clare went on to submit that book to publishers but even though it had positive feedback sadly it didn’t get picked up. I was very upset, but dusted myself off and got back to writing something else to take my mind off the disappointment. But then the very same thing happened with my second book! It wasn’t until my third book that I got to the stage of talking to an editor at a major publishing house on the phone, with the book subsequently going to acquisitions. Clare and I felt quietly positive, but then we got the sad news that while overall they loved the story, the sales team had concerns about sales of similar types of contemporary teen fiction and so they would not be making an offer. This was another real low point and I wondered what to do next. After a few weeks off and chatting things through with Clare, I decided to try something new – historical fiction, something I have always read and enjoyed. I remember sending Clare the first three chapters of what was to become The Garden of Lost Secrets and she emailed me straight back. ‘I love it – just write it,’ she said. So I did.

In the end it was my fourth book – The Garden of Lost Secrets – that was The One that eventually got me the book deal of my dreams with Usborne this year. I guess the moral of this is to stay determined – both at the ‘trying to get an agent stage’ and the ‘trying to get a publisher stage’ but also don’t be afraid to experiment with different genres and styles of writing if what you are writing doesn’t seem to be working. While my first four books will always have a place in my heart, the switch to historical fiction was the best decision I ever made and now I can’t imagine writing anything else!

The Garden of Lost Secrets was published by Usborne in 2019 and has gone on to experience great success. The Times chose it as their Children’s Book of the Week, calling it ‘an impressive debut … [with] an effective twist that goes off with a bang’. It’s also had rave reviews in the Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and the i, and it was picked by The Bookseller as One to Watch, who described A. M. as a ‘brilliant new voice’.

A. M. Howell’s latest book, The House of One Hundred Clocks, will be published in February 2020. It’s full of dark secrets, ticking clocks and mysterious ghostly figures, and you can read an extract here. You can follow A. M. on Twitter and Instagram or visit her website where she shares her future projects.

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Beth Reekles’s Five Top Tips for Writers

Beth author photo TO USE1When did you decide you wanted to be a writer? For super-star author Beth Reekles, that urge came at fifteen when she started sharing chapters of The Kissing Booth on story-sharing platform Wattpad. It quickly accumulated over 19 million reads and was snapped up by publishers Random House. Since then, Beth has written three more Kissing Booth books and three other YA novels, had her story turned into a smash-hit Neflix film starring Joey King and Jacob Elordi, and is now writing for adults too.

To achieve all this around university and a job (as well as parties, holidays and, well, life), Beth has had to develop some strategies for her writing, from editing all the way down to just getting started. We asked her to share her top tips for budding authors out there, and she came up with some brilliant suggestions:

Five top tips for writers

  1. Write the book you want to read

I absolutely swear by this advice. I consider it my motto! I find myself so much more inspired and motivated when I write the kind of book I’d like to be reading, and I definitely would never have written The Kissing Booth if I didn’t follow this advice – I wrote it when vampire romances were all the rage, and I was just a little bored of that, wanting a regular high-school romance instead.

  1. Read

When I’m not reading, I’m less inspired to write. I think a lot of that is because when I’m reading, I’ll end up thinking about the kind of storylines and characters I’d like to see that maybe aren’t showing up in the book I’m reading. But also: reading definitely helps you develop your own writing style and pick up on techniques that you might struggle to learn otherwise.

  1. Set goals and get organised

I wouldn’t get anything done without my ToDoist app and lists of monthly/yearly goals. I’m a forgetful person anyway, but holding down a full-time job and working on seven books in one year keeps me pretty busy – so organising your time is vital. I’d really advise scheduling in any chores or commitments first, so you can figure out what time you have to write… and set yourself goals, even if it’s just hitting a milestone in your word count, to hold yourself accountable and treat yourself a little when you meet them!

  1. Get social

Social media can be pretty daunting and difficult, and I’m not going to pretend that I haven’t unfollowed certain authors because they make me feel like a failure sometimes. But overall, I’ve found the bookish community – especially on Twitter – to be so supportive. It’s great to connect with other writers and something I love to do is share when I am writing and how many words I’ve managed to do in a particular writing session, because it helps drive me. Plus, there’s the added bonus of broadening your audience and connecting to more readers.

  1. Just start!

The worst thing you can do when you’re thinking about writing a book is to worry about how to start it. Editing is hard – but trust me, it’s so much easier to edit a bad chapter than to try and write a perfect one in the first place. You’ll edit your novel no matter what, and they do say ‘done’ is better than ‘perfect’. Give it a try and get stuck in! You never know what might happen.

Beth Reekles is the author of The Kissing Booth series (The Kissing Booth, Going the Distance and The Beach House, Penguin Random House) as well as three other novels for young adults (Out of Tune and Rolling Dice, Penguin Random House, and Cwtch Me If You Can, Accent Press). Her first story for adults, It Won’t Be Christmas Without You, is out now in eBook from One More Chapter and will be available in paperback on the 31st October. Beth has also been selected as one of the World Book Day authors for 2020, and her World Book Day £1 book The Kissing Booth: Road Trip! will be published in March 2020.

You can follow Beth on Twitter, Instagram or visit her website where she shares more of her top tips as part of her Writing Wednesdays series.

It Won't Be Christmas Without You - Beth Reekles

Samantha Tonge’s Top Tips for Writing

Sam Tonge new photo 2018_nSamantha Tonge is a contemporary women’s fiction novelist whose debut, Doubting Abbey, was shortlisted for the Festival of Romantic Fiction Best Ebook award. She has also won the Love Stories Awards Best Romantic Ebook award, and is a Top Ten Amazon Kindle bestseller.

Learning the craft of writing is a task with no end. After eight years of writing manuscript after manuscript, and receiving numerous rejections (yes, a couple from Darley Anderson!) my debut finally came out in 2013. Since then I’ve had 11 books published. My 12th is out soon. And during the last six years every new project has taught me something new.

Thank goodness. Because if I ever got to the complacent point of thinking I knew enough, it would make for one very boring career – and probably wouldn’t produce my best work. Part of the joy, for me, is a sense that I am always improving and that there is fresh knowledge to take from each new book.

Here are my five top tips.

1 – At all times work to propel the reader forwards to the next page. To do this make sure the end of each chapter is gripping. This doesn’t have to mean a series of big cliff-hangers. In the first manuscripts I wrote (before getting published) I eventually noticed that I used to tie up each chapter nicely at the end, as if each one was a complete short story. This was satisfying for me as the writer, but where was the hook for the reader? Why should they carry on turning pages? I soon learnt to always leave the reader wanting more.

Then a fellow writer shared a tip a prospective agency had given her – to begin each chapter with a hook as well. Again, this doesn’t have to be anything momentous, just enough of a hint of intrigue in the upcoming chapter for the reader to keenly plough ahead. Or it might just mean a really tightly-written, crisp first paragraph. Don’t ever get lazy and feel that because you are a few chapters in you can take your foot off the pedal. Yes, pace needs to wax and wane – otherwise the reader will feel exhausted – but this doesn’t mean the intrigue needs to disappear.

And don’t forget the crucial first line or lines of the whole novel. It/they must grab the book browser and reflect the tone of your story. Here are examples from some favourite books of mine.

Even before stepping into the cottage, Gary knows that this is bad.” The Taking of Annie Thorne by C.J. Tudor

The thing about lying to your parents is, you have to do it to protect them. It’s for their own good.’ Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella.

From the very beginning there was not the slightest doubt that Olga da Polga was the sort of guinea-pig who would go places.” The Tales of Olga da Polga by Michael Bond.

I am old. That is the main thing to tell you. The thing you are least likely to believe.” How to Stop Time by Matt Haig.

2 – To really grip the reader – and any agent/publisher considering your manuscript – begin where the story really starts. In other words, cut the backstory. My 2018 novel, One Summer in Rome, is about a woman fed up with her London life who decides to escape her problems and move to Italy. Originally my opening chapters were about her life in England and what was wrong with it. But as my agent pointed out, the story is really about her trip abroad. So the final published version actually starts with her sitting on the aeroplane and all of that previous set-up is instead threaded through the following chapters.

3 Raise the Stakes – you want the readers to really be rooting for your main character and to become totally invested in their story. For this to happen the stakes need to be high. My 2019 women’s fiction novel, Knowing You, is about Violet, an unassuming young woman taken under the wing of a domineering new best friend. The result of this threatens a romance, threatens her friendships… but I realised, after feedback, that this wasn’t enough to really pull the reader into the story, and might produce an almost “so what?” reaction. Therefore in the final version her whole career and livelihood are put at risk as well.

4It’s all in the detail. Really explore the five senses whilst writing your novel, in order to offer your reader a fully escapist, satisfying, realistic read where they can imagine the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures of the literary world you are inviting them into.

My upcoming release, The Christmas Calendar Girls, is my 3rd festive book and in those novels I work hard at creating that magical December atmosphere by describing the smells – of pine needles, mulled wine, roasting turkey… the sounds – jingling bells, children’s laughter, Christmas music… and so on.

Readers don’t just need to know how to simply visualise your characters and settings – after every paragraph you write consider if you’ve offered a full sensory experience.

5 – A brief one here – yes, you often must “murder your darlings”. You know, the parts of your novel that you think are outstanding, those paragraphs or ideas that you’ve harboured and held onto and possibly lifted from a previous unpublished work, that you’ve polished and re-read hundreds of times because you think they are so good (or is that just me!)? Often you’ve become too attached to them and they need to go. But no matter. As I’ve learnt from experience, the mind of a creative is a fickle thing and you’ll soon replace them with something new.

Don’t give up – and good luck!

The Christmas Calendar Girls will be released on the 3rd of October and is available to pre-order here

You can follow Samantha on Twitter or Facebook and visit her website here, where Samantha also blogs about her writing journey and mental health.

The Christmas Calendar Girls

On Writing: Adolescents with Cathy Cassidy

On Writing is back. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be bringing you some more invaluable writing tips from the DA Agency authors and the DA Children’s Book Agency authors. This series will lead us into the beginning of September, known in the publishing industry as the beginning of ‘Frankfurt Book Fair fever’.

To kick off the new series, we’re looking at writing characters who are at one of the most pivotal and life shaping stages of their lives: adolescence. A teenage character is quite often one of the hardest age groups to accurately portray or write convincingly. Nothing is more jarring, or even cringe inducing, than reading a teenage character who is evidently written by an adult (e.g.  if you’re writing dialogue that includes “far out” or “tubular” in 2019 – it’s pretty safe to say it’s not an accurate portrayal of a contemporary teenager).

To help guide us, we have the critically-acclaimed and bestselling children’s book author Cathy Cassidy. Cathy is the author of over 30 novels for children and young people, including the outstanding Chocolate Box Girls series and the Lost & Found series. She has now sold over 3 million books worldwide and has been lauded for writing ‘touching, tender and unforgettable’ characters. Her unique and distinctive voice always feels  truthful to a young person’s experience.

We asked Cathy a few questions to give us an insight into how she brings this authenticity to her writing:

Sasha's Secret - cover image - 29 05 19

Where do you draw inspiration from?

Inspiration is everywhere… things I see, hear, remember, imagine! People are a huge source of inspiration – I am a real ‘people-watcher’ – and I’m fascinated by emotions too, so there is never any shortage of ideas! My readers are constantly in touch with me and I meet them regularly at signings and events and book festivals, and sometimes readers have unwittingly inspired a story. By the time I put that spark of inspiration through the whole daydreaming, story-making process, they wouldn’t recognise that the story had any links to them at all!

 

How do you make your characters feel and sound authentic?

The characters are ‘real’ to me, I think that’s the key! The story unfolds in my mind in daydream form, as if it’s a movie, and as the author I get to pull the strings and direct what the characters do. They don’t always listen! I always feel that I know far more about my characters than is ever revealed in the books. I always draw the main characters, which somehow makes them come alive for me. I think if those characters are real and authentic to me, that carries over into what I write. I hope so!

 

What is the biggest challenge? 

Managing my time and staying disciplined… and meeting deadlines! Sometimes it can be hard to get a good balance in life, especially when life throws a few curveballs at you, but once you jump into the story it generally grabs you and pulls you right in, so then it’s just a case of sticking at it. I don’t plan on paper, so I sometimes go off at tangents… but sometimes they are the best bits!

 

What are things to bear in mind when writing for teens or a younger audience?

I think that for me, it’s just the way my stories come out – the ‘voice’ is not a conscious thing, it’s instinctive. I’ve written for that age group for most of my life, even before the novels… short stories for teens, work as a teen mag journalist etc., so the way I write is very much natural and ‘from the heart’. I think kids do pick up on this… if you’re not being authentic or true to yourself, they’ll spot it. I’d say it’s important not to ‘write down’ to children or young people… not to be patronising or twee… and to tackle difficult issues (if you are going to tackle them at all) with honesty, warmth and hope.

 

How do you keep up with relevant issues for teenagers?

I don’t think too much about it to be honest. Many of the themes are timeless, though the details may change with time… for instance, when Honey is stalked in Sweet Honey, it’s cyber stalking and that whole online safety issue and the concern of internet safety is explored. I suppose I stay pretty much up to date on what concerns my readers have because they email and message me constantly to tell me just what worries them! I think if a reader identifies strongly with a book, they then come to trust the author and perhaps confide in them. Either that, or it’s my past experience as a teen mag agony aunt coming out!

 

Be sure to follow @cathycassidyxx on Twitter and pick up a copy of her latest novel Sasha’s Secret (Lost & Found #3)

Why Polly Ho-Yen is supporting #DACBaccess

d7ab377c9fb0a45131800085199c77e1Polly Ho-Yen is the award-winning author of Boy in the Tower, Where Monsters Lie and Fly Me Home. She is our partnering author for Middle Grade writers during our #DACBaccess open month. Here’s why Polly is supporting the open month, and her top tips on putting together a submission:

‘There was a winding line of children waiting to have their book signed at the school I visited last week. We’d been doodling ideas for stories. Each student, as they approached me, was gripping on tightly to their piece of paper as though their idea might take flight and disappear if they didn’t. I talk to school groups about the value and the richness of their everyday experience – how no one else in the world is quite like them and so whatever they choose to make will be completely original because they made it. I tell them about my family. I show them a picture of my dad when he’s about four, with a little rounded sticking out pot belly. I tell them about small things that I’ve experienced that become big things when I write them down. We talk about soggy broccoli (possibly too much.)

I love visiting schools because it’s as though you can see a switch has been flicked; I can almost see them thinking, ‘well, if she can do it, then …’ Possibilities swarm the room, with excitement following as its tail.

The next boy stepped in front of me. “I’m like you,” he told me, grinning so widely that his cheeks expanded out. Two inflating balloons. “I’m half Chinese too. Only it’s my mum who’s Chinese. My dad’s English,” he went on. He told me the story of how they met, finishing with, “There’s no one else like me in the school” before launching into his idea for his book, without pausing for breath.

Next month I’ll be reading submissions made to Darley Anderson as part of their open submission month for BAME writers. #DACBaccess is a simple idea – over the month of November BAME authors can submit their work to a dedicated inbox to be read by agents over December and a shortlist will be given detailed feedback from both an agent and an author. I’ll be looking at the middle grade stories. I’m doing this for a very simple reason: we need more diverse writers and we have to do more to find them. Of course, submissions are open to all, all of the time but #DACBaccess has been created to make little more space for BAME writers to send in their submissions.

Like the standard submission, #DACBaccess asks for a covering letter, a synopsis and the first three chapters. It has to be a piece of work that you have finished (and that you feel that you’ve finished – it needs to be as polished and edited as you can possibly make it.) You might be reading this and decide here and now that you’re simply not at this stage in time for this open access month. I would urge you not to give up and wait until you truly feel that you have the whole book finished and that you’re as happy with it as possible, before you submit, open submission month or not. You need to be at the point where when you whisper softly to your book, “Are you the best you can be?” and it solemnly nods its head back at you, before you think about submitting. If you’re at this stage, then approach the covering letter and the synopsis like they are writing exercises. I’ve got to say I hated writing my covering letter because I felt a bit like a fraud and that I definitely was not good enough and I HATE talking about myself and I’m not even sure that my writing is any good in the first place. So if you’re feeling like that’s you, take a deep breath and remember these things when writing your covering letter:

Try to keep it short and succinct. Don’t give the agent a sinking feeling that they have to trawl through reams of writing to try and work out who you are and what your book is – make it nice and easy and clear for them.

– Start with a basic introductory sentence that tells them the title of what you are submitting. (There’s no point reinventing the wheel here.)

– Followed by (roughly) a one or two paragraph summary/introduction to your book which will tell them why it will interest them. This is the tricky bit of the letter – it needs to be direct, clear and communicate the plot, tone and style of what you have written. Think of that one line hook that captures what your book is. For ‘Boy in the Tower’ I wanted to communicate that it was a kind of ‘The Day of the Triffids’ for kids in a modern urban setting that I knew.

In fact, this is exactly what I wrote:

I would like to submit BOY IN THE TOWER for your consideration.

I started writing this book after I couldn’t get a picture out of my head: A lone tower block standing, amidst a lush, jungle-like landscape. I work in a South London Primary School, which is surrounded by tower blocks, estates and a network of busy roads, and so perhaps it was a reaction to the inner city that brought me to BOY IN THE TOWER.

It tells the story of a nine-year-old boy called Ade who is a survivor of the attack and invasion of the Bluchers, a type of plant or fungus which feed upon the buildings of the city, dissolving them down into nothing. Ade finds himself trapped in his tower block as the world around him changes beyond all recognition. I am a fan of post-apocalyptic literature and film and I wanted to create a modern day story for children on this theme, with a nod to Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids.

I can’t say it better than Patrick Ness who in his tips for writing at Booktrust (which are brilliant – maybe don’t read this anymore and check them out: https://www.booktrust.org.uk/books-and-reading/tips-and-advice/writing-tips/writing-tips-from-authors/patrick-nesss-guide-to-writing) to remember that the covering letter “is an advertisement for yourself and for the book, so make it as good as possible. It must serve the same function as your fiction: it must be good enough to make them turn the page.”

I also hate writing synopses and so I’m sorry that we’re asking you to have to write and send that in too but the agent needs to see quickly what happens in your book. They want to get the sense that the plot is strong and will hold up. Be as short and clear as you can, but include all the plot twists and turns – it needs to tell the complete, full story.

Then those first three chapters. That should be the easy part, as you have already written those and read them to yourself a million times and have had anyone you’re living with asking you why you’re talking to yourself because you’ve been reading them aloud when you think no one else is in.

Then press send to access@darleyanderson.com and think about something else for a while. Maybe eat a brownie.

I hope that you will think about submitting and that this is just the start of things for you. I wish you all the luck for the beginning of your book journey and beyond, and hey, I can’t wait to get reading!’

On Writing: Cross-genre novels with G.X. Todd

In today’s On Writing blog, G.X. Todd, the author of the incredible and genre-defying Voices series, talks about the importance of writing what you love and not to a current trend.

Join G.X. Todd tonight for the  event, at 8pm GMT on Twitter, which aims to promote the outstanding female authors in the often underrepresented Science Fiction genre. More details here on her blog.

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Hunted (Voices #2) was published by Headline on 31st May – get it here 

On Writing: Cross-genre stories that defy categorisation

The Voices series falls into a number of genres. The two books so far released (Defender and Hunted) have been described as thriller, science fiction, horror, dystopian, post-apocalyptic, speculative, action and adventure, and probably some more that I’ve missed. I’ve seen them shelved in the Crime & Thriller section and I’ve seen them sharing space on the Fantasy and Sci-fi tables. Did I set out to write books that didn’t easily fall into genre categories? Nope, I didn’t. In fact, it can make things tricky. How will your books be marketed and to whom? Where will bookshops place you? How will the publisher decide on cover designs, etc.?

Well, dear readers and writers, none of those are easy questions to answer. And, really, you won’t have to answer them anyway. It will be your publisher’s job to figure it out. All you need to do is write something that excites you, something that keeps you awake at night thinking about it, something that has been rattling around in your head and insists on being purged in the only way you know how. You, dear writer, need only write what you want to write. Don’t worry about all that other stuff. It’s peripheral and it’s distracting. The truly great stories are the ones that come out of nowhere, that make you feel something, that immerse you so completely that you never want them to end. Who could have predicted that a boy wizard in a magical boarding school would sell millions upon millions of copies world-wide? Who knew that an epic fantasy series, the first of which was published more than two decades ago, would twenty years later become one of the most successful and beloved TV shows ever made? Point is, no one can predict that stuff: not publishers, not bookshops, not even Mystic Meg herself.

There will always be the argument that you should work on something you know might sell. Stack the odds in your favour, as it were. Write that psychological thriller and put Girl or Sister in the title somewhere. Make sure to add a twist, even if it doesn’t fit or it comes out of leftfield and makes no sense. Sure, it could land you an agent – it could even land you that coveted book deal – and congratulations to you if it does! It’s a tough business to break in to and lots of writers fall by the wayside along the way. Making it all the way to publication is a real achievement. But you’ll be swimming in a very busy pond, filled with many, many fish that are all performing similar strokes. And if your dream is to make a career out of writing, you’re probably going to be spending a lot time writing those same kinds of books, over and over and over again.

What this is all building up to is: write what you love. Write the things you want to read. Write the things you don’t think have been written yet. Don’t be scared. Don’t second guess yourself. That can all come later when you’re about to embark on writing book 2 for your brand-spanking-new publisher and you’re holding a beautiful finished copy of your novel in your hands, a novel that no one could have written but you. And if you need permission to go and write that special something that might not easily fit with what all those industriously-swimming fish are doing – which you don’t, by the way – I hereby grant it to you. Go forth and slay.

Head to gxtodd.com and follow @GemTodd on Twitter to find out more about the acclaimed Voices series and #ReadWomenSF

On Writing: Dialogue with Kerry Fisher

It’s easy to talk, for most people. On average, we speak around 20,000 words every day. But trying to replicate the ease and nonchalance of conversation with your best friend is tricky. Dialogue is, notoriously, one of the harder things to get right when writing a novel. How often have you read a piece of dialogue in a book and thought that it didn’t sound right or was pointless? It can often be tough to nail the style, delivery and keep it useful to the story.

Today, on the publication of her ‘layered and poignant’ new novel, The Secret Child, bestselling author Kerry Fisher gives us her top tips on writing dialogue.

The Secret Child - amazon

1. Listen to how people speak – in shops, on the train, on TV. Dialogue is influenced by background, age and where you live, as well as the environment the character finds himself/herself in. People speaking in a job interview or making a complaint on the telephone will sound more formal than when they are at the pub with their friends.

2. Teenagers are a tricky age group to write dialogue for because their favourite/current words are constantly evolving. Keep checking with someone in the right age group that the words you’ve used are not from the 1990s.

3. The biggest lesson I’ve learnt about dialogue is not to be too formal. This is where listening to how people really speak comes in. Don’t overthink it – just imagine your character is rushing into a bar to tell his friends what he’s just seen in the street – ‘There’s a right old commotion going on outside. Some bloke just fell off his bike in front of a lorry and everyone’s getting out of their cars to have a good old stare.’ Which is much more natural than ‘There’s been an accident outside. A man’s fallen off his bicycle in front of a lorry and lots of people have got out of their cars to have a look.’

4. People do swear, so if you have a character who would use colourful language, you just have to forget that your mother might be reading (anything, ever). In my experience, most readers will tolerate moderate swearing even ones who don’t like profanity if it’s in keeping with the character. I’d be reasonably sparing with the F-bomb and think very carefully about whether the C-word is absolutely necessary unless you really want to shock or expect your readership to be fairly young.

5. Dialect or an attempt to convey an accent onto the page can be tiring to read. Give your character a couple of words to give a flavour of the accent and leave it at that. Readers hate having to decipher what’s written before they can enjoy the story. In my debut novel, The Not So Perfect Mum, one of my characters had a Basque name, Etxeleku, and I got more complaints about that than anything else in the book because people didn’t know how to pronounce it.

6. Most people don’t often use other people’s names in conversation once they’ve been introduced, unless they are calling them over or trying to get their attention so keep the ‘Would you like a cup of tea, Paul?’/ ‘Where are you going tomorrow, Sandra?’ to a minimum.

7. Usually people don’t speak for very long without someone chipping in or interrupting. Try to avoid huge paragraphs of speech without any action in between.

8. Dialogue should help you distinguish between characters in a book. There are lots of ways to do this but it could be that one character speaks very informally with lots of slang, gives everyone a nickname. Another character might use long, rather pompous words. In my novel, The Silent Wife, I tried to differentiate between two women from different social classes by using specific vocabulary for each one e.g. sitting room/drawing room/lounge/front room, sofa/couch/settee. If, like me, you’re not sure which is the ‘posh’ word, the internet is alive and kicking with forums to debate these things!

The Secret Child by Kerry Fisher is out now, get it here. Follow Kerry on Twitter: @KerryFSwayne