Skip to main content


In which I impart bad news...

There is no shortcut to a writing career. You can try to find it, you can bypass steps and buy in support, but at some point there are certain things you need to master. Here, then, are some of the things I hated having to learn and am now glad I did.

1. Blurbs, queries, synopsis, taglines, whatever variety and version you want to refer to. Yesterday I was in the position of chatting about my novel. "What's it about?" I was asked. This wasn't a casual chit-chat, this was the time and place for - and expectation of - a pitch.

There is no time to stop and think. No time to look at my feet and mutter about my artistic hopes for it, or my desired outcome. No room for themes or influences. This is a single line to sum up my novel.

"It's aliens vs Belfast with a dash of District-9," I said, and felt very glad I knew that. (For Abendau 'grimdark Star Wars' works well). Except as things wore on, a different emphasis was needed on my one-line pitch. And a synopsis was also needed with a required slant.

Now, like most authors writing pitches is not on my top-5 to-do favourites. I'd love a marketing department to do one for me but have yet to reach such heady heights. So, I got down to the work and came up with something (which might change, but I think is edging towards where I need it to).

To get to the point where I can take a deep breath and get on with that process - whether or not I want to - has taken some four years. Four years of helping with other writers' blurbs (what we can't see about our own work, we can with others'), of reading blurbs and figuring out what works. I spent a gruelling month or so on Absolute Write's aptly named query letter hell, learning what hooks and what doesn't (for the same book as it happens. My tagline then was that even the aliens were finding Ireland a bastard to conquer - which I still like but, really, it's set in Northern Ireland and that's a mouthful and I can't say Ireland for Northern Ireland because they're different places, and Ulster is a huge political no-no, and it all got too messy).

So, 'suck it up' number one. Learn to write a pitch, a blurb, a query and a synopsis. Learn what each is, and when they're needed. What a US query should look like and a UK. Yes, it's a pain, but you will save yourself a lot of time and anxiety in the longer term.

2. Editing and all that. Ever hear the urban myth about (insert name) the leading writer whose book is only good because they have loads of editorial support. I used to believe this, in my naivete. I thought it would be okay to put something out to query that needed some work. The agent or publisher would see the quality of the idea and work with me to make it perfect.

Wrong, wrong and wrong again. Don't get me wrong - the editorial process makes a huge difference to my books. Teresa hunted down and flattened the flabby bits in Abendau, the parts where pace died on me, all the character nuances that made no sense to anyone other than me. Jeff made me review the pacing in Inish Carraig, challenged scenes and whether they should be included and laughed at my use of the word panted. As for Sam, my copy editor, the blushes she has saved are second only to the polish she puts on things, with commas in the right place, and the correct m and n and whatever dashes. Not to say the consistent spelling of Syllte throughout.

So, yes, the book you see out there is more edited and polished.But (apart from the copyedit when I accept my grammar changes like a good little author) the work is actually done by me. The scenes are rewritten by me, the story woven back together by me. The editor tells me what is wrong - they do not rewrite it for me. To think it is possible to get a polished book without learning how to self edit, and write good in the first place (;) is a fallacy.

Learn to at least write cleanly enough to be edited. Learn what makes good prose and pace, what hooks a reader and what doesn't. Get into a writers' group, or a critique circle, onto or whatever critique site of your choice and listen to the feedback. If it's bad, take it on board if needed. Don't gnash your teeth and believe your genius isn't being recognised. (I accept this can happen, but you are probably not the 1 in 1000 James Joyce.)

3. Lastly, marketing.

Come back! Stop running away from it!

Look, I know lots of my writer friends hate marketing with a passion. I know promotion scares the living daylights out of them. I know promotion is not why they - or me, or any writer I know - went into this gig.

This is the modern world. We are accessible, all the time. We are a worldwide market, our books out there competing against anything else published. No one else will market your book for you.

Sure, it might take off. That has happened to about 3 of my probably couple of hundred writer friends. So, yeah, absolutely hope for the best.

Or, alternatively, suck it up and learn how to do it. I don't accept there is anyone in the world can't do some sort of marketing, given the opportunities out there now.

If you like meeting people, go to conventions, have signing sessions, attend reading group meetings.If you like taking photos, start a blog of fantasy-related pics, or sf, or werewolves in the wild, whatever floats your boat. If you like writing start a blog. If you're ace at tweeting (I'm not) go and be pithy in 140 characters - it's worked a treat for Marian Keyes. If you like forums, go forth and chat. If you like reading, do a review blog. If you like cosplay start a pinterest board of stunning costumes. If you're an ace at graphic artist, book trailers are very in at the moment.

There is something you can do. You only think there might not be.

I could go on. I could talk about learning to format, about learning how a cover draws attention, about how ideas can be tweaked to sell better etc etc.

The bottom line is this - writing is a profession, if you chose to go to that level. You wouldn't blag it and hope for the best in any other profession - you shouldn't with writing, either. Learn the craft, and the business, and give yourself half a chance.