Monday, 23 June 2014

Week Nine: Juggling Pseudonyms

Increasingly, writers are being asked to split themselves in two. Or three, or four. Or five.

Writing as schizophrenia: the freedoms and hazards of the multiple-pseudonym approach.

I'm not talking about being a writer and also having to develop the skills of a marketing and promotional campaign manager, public speaker, social media guru and whatever else lies ahead for us in this increasingly beleaguered profession. I'm talking about the need to write different genres under different names.

For the uninitiated, this may seem like nonsense. Stick to one name, and publish whatever you like under it. Well, it's an option. But because of the way the human psyche works, or perhaps because of the way publishing has worked for the past few hundred years, a writer tends to be associated with a certain kind of publication. So let's say you have always written crime fiction, then suddenly produce something different - say, historical romance - under the same name, you are likely to land yourself in trouble.

Firstly, you will annoy your loyal readership by producing something that nonplusses them. Secondly, you will annoy your new readers who, loving your fabulous romance, order some of your backlist only to find themselves reading crime fiction.

By Joanne Rowling, aka J.K. Rowling, aka Robert Galbraith

This may be one possible reason J.K. Rowling chose to publish her new crime novels as Robert Galbraith (the fact that male writers often reach a wider readership and are more likely to be nominated for literary prizes and win them is a whole other kettle of publishing fish).

So you say, right, my writing name will be Jane Acrostic for crime, and Jane (or Joe) Bloggs for romance.

Then you realise the awful truth.

Because it doesn't stop there, at the choice of a pen-name. All writers are now expected to promote themselves wildly and without shame, like people who leave saucy business cards in phone boxes. If they don't, and subsequently fail to sell, or even if they do and subsequently fail to sell, they may end up without a publisher.

So both these writers - Jane Acrostic and Jane/Joe Bloggs - need separate Twitter accounts. And Facebook accounts. And probably email accounts. And blogs. And reader lists. And marketing plans. And bloggers to reach out to.

Some writers plough on and write in other genres under a third or fourth pseudonym. The sky's the limit if you are a flexible enough writer, and have the time and patience to tweet and blog under a gazillion names.

You could keep stories under each pen-name in separate notebooks or doc folders, to avoid confusion.

In this cannon fodder-rich, advance-poor world of books, you may find yourself split another way: between traditional publishing and self-publishing. You may be an established traditional novelist with flagging returns who chooses to self-publish their rights-reverted backlist. Or you may be unable to make ends meet on the advance offered by your traditional publisher, so have to moonlight as Juliet Boobs on Smashwords or Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing, tossing off a quick sexy read every few weeks to draw in a few extra pounds to feed the electricity meter. Or maybe you got funnelled into writing one kind of book early on, and have always yearned to write something totally different.

So let's say you choose to go down this route, writing in several different genres. How might it work?

I have done this myself, writing historical and YA fiction as Victoria Lamb and steamy historical romance as Elizabeth Moss, both for traditional publishers, not to mention a few other names that collectively bring home the bacon. My brother tells me this is known as a 'portfolio career' in music, which is his field. I know how it works for me. But everyone is different. I shall describe my own experience here, and hope others may comment on this post to share their experiences too.

By me
Also by me

First, you need to discuss a change of genre with your agent and/or editor, if you have one. They will probably be resistant; it's hard to establish a writer's name in the first place, let alone TWO names. But let's assume your first name is flagging a bit, and they are less hard to persuade. Or you are 'between publishers' and free to relaunch your career. Unless you plan to self-publish - in which case you might want to consider making writerly friends within the new genre and finding someone who might advise you on a quid pro quo basis - then you will probably need to produce a large sample of the proposed manuscript and a synopsis, to indicate ability to work in this new genre. You may even need to produce the entire book before a contract will be agreed. (Some hard grafters do this every time, though I try to avoid it at all costs. There's always another bill waiting to be paid ...)

Once a change of genre is approved - and this is far from certain, publishers being shy of change at the moment and inclined not to take risks - you will need to discuss your new name.

Yes, this is by me too

Some writers - like Iain Banks/Iain M. Banks - have chosen to use the same name, but stuck an initial in the mix for the new genre. I personally find that confusing, but that's just me. You might want to use another related name, or something personal to you - Lamb was my mother's pseudonym, Moss my first married surname, and Victoria and Elizabeth are my middle names. Or you could be totally cynical and choose something that fits the new genre: something hard or sinister for crime, something sexy and enticing for romance. Never forget, your mission is to build an entirely new persona, and your pseudonym will be at the forefront of that effort.

By my mum, Charlotte Lamb

If you find it hard to juggle several writing names, get organised. Use whiteboards or corkboards, and list projects, accounts and contacts under each name. Be careful with online passwords for email/blogs etc; you're supposed to have different ones for each account, and not keep a written record, so make sure each password is memorable for that name, or use some Master Password software to help you. I frequently use Twitter on iPad, which allows me to keep all my Twitter accounts permanently logged in and switch between them with a couple of flicks, so I can post easily on different accounts within a space of seconds. TweetDeck also allows this, though I find it unwieldy with more than three or four names, as it lists accounts horizontally instead of on separate flickable pages. You may want to see what works best for you.

Develop a solid persona for each name, and stick to it wherever possible. I tend to leap between names on social media, as so many people know I have several, there's no point hiding the fact, plus I find it amusing to troll myself under another name. But you may prefer to draw a strict line between them. Certainly it is less confusing for readers if you keep each pseudonym in a separate 'box' and never mix them up. I find it a touch dishonest to create totally new biogs for each name, but that's only because so many people know who I really am in person. If you're keeping them separate, and will never meet anyone in the flesh, you can invent a whole new life for your biog. Just make sure you don't 'come out' later and risk alienating people who only read your books because they wrongly believed you were from Basingstoke, or a former concert violinist, or a devout Anglican.

By - you guessed it - me!
If you choose to do a public event under one pen-name, and are reasonably well-known under another, be aware you may be exposed at that point. People take photos, and innocently blog or tweet them, unaware of your guilty secret. So if you don't want your trad publishers or your jam-making Quaker romance fans to know you also wrote that smutty tale of swinging couples, don't turn up at the London Fetish Fair to promote it - unless clad in a concealing gimp mask.

Decide early on how much promo you can manage for each name, and which name will benefit most from each kind of promotion. Book marketing is not 'one size fits all.' To sell in a new genre, you usually need to do some research: find out where your main readership is likely to be hanging out on social media, or sites like Goodreads, then target it. Make as many friends as you can, insinuate yourself into groups, copy what other writers do. Yes, it's a bit creepy. But you can relax somewhat once the initial push is done. You just need to get your new pseudonym known and accepted in the best places for your book, and after that, you can concentrate on the new books you're writing and on building a career in that genre.

And if you think all that sounds like bloody hard work, it is. Welcome to my day.

QUESTION: Do you have more than one pen-name, and how do you cope with the separate promo? Or do you have a question about writing under more than one name?

Monday, 16 June 2014

Week Eight: Dealing With Rejection

Dear Novelist, your book sucks.
This week I have decided to talk about how writers can deal with rejection. I've written about this before elsewhere, so here are my expanded thoughts. I hope they're as useful to anyone facing this situation as they have been to me. Please do join in and comment afterwards!
Why does it hurt so much to have a novel rejected? 

By the time you’ve finished a novel, it’s become a part of you. To have it rejected by an agent or publisher can feel like a personal affront. And indeed sometimes it is personal. A novel is an extension of who we are, yes, but when a book is rejected, occasionally it's not because the book sucks: you may not be the most marketable person around, and these days publishers want authors they can sell, not shy types with odd histories. They may pass on a reasonable book from someone with no social media presence, or whose track record makes them nervous.

The first is fixable. Get yourself a Twitter and Facebook account, and learn how to blog with the rest of us poor promo-monkeys. The second is more insidious. You may need to be equally sneaky if earlier books have bombed and no one will touch you. Send out your book under a different name, and remember to create a whole new persona to go with it - including new social media accounts! (There's no escape from it, is there?)

Yet rejection is an intrinsic part of the publishing business. We can fix these problems, but we still go through it at some stage, and sometimes it’s the quickest way to improve, to get a feel for what's currently good and what's not. 

So, how to cope with the hurt of rejection, and still keep writing and believing in yourself?

Stay professional (even if it kills you). Allow yourself some natural moments of pique - throwing darts at the rejection letter used to be a favourite of mine, before everything became electronic - then get yourself in hand again. Rejection is horrible. But you can’t please everyone all of the time, and you can never be entirely sure why a book was rejected, so you might as well shrug it off and move on. It’s as simple as that. 

Learn to shrug off rejection and keep writing. There's always the next book.

Still seething? Okay. Ask yourself, was your rejection justified?

Consider whether your work was less polished than it should have been, missing some vital element that would have made it more successful, or if it was on the wrong track altogether. Then act on your findings. This should not be an emotional decision. If advice or feedback came with the rejection, take some time to digest the hurt, then sit back and assess it coolly. Not all advice is helpful. Some of it may be plain wrong. Perhaps you simply sent your book to the wrong person, or the right person at the wrong time. We all know of famous novels that were rejected and became bestsellers. We all know - or should by now have started to understand - that an editorial judgement on your novel is not the word of God.

People can be wrong about a book. Even en masse. 

On the other hand, few novels spring fully formed from a writer’s mind. Even a rejection note may be useful if it spurs you into action that may get your novel accepted elsewhere.

If you choose to revise, submit again to different places. Be brave and send out your work as soon as any changes have been implemented. Be sure you target the right people. Check that the agent or publisher handles your genre. Sometimes a rejection has a simple explanation like that and is no reflection on your work. One example of an ‘unseen’ disadvantage is when a similar book or writer has already been accepted, so they can’t commit to yours because of a potential clash of interests.
This may seem incredible when you've written a niche book for a niche market. But in fact it happens quite frequently. Subjects are up there, in the ether, and people pluck them down at the same time with astonishing frequency. Then it becomes a case of who writes the damn book first. If you were too slow, you may have missed your window.

Or perhaps the publisher is feeling worried about a particular genre or sub-genre, and has decided to stop accepting it for the time being. This also happens. Genres have trends. They become wildly fashionable, and everyone jumps on the bandwagon. Then abruptly, sometimes for no obvious reason, those books crash into obscurity. The market is saturated and nobody wants them anymore. Again, don't be slow if chasing a bandwagon. They can move with surreal speed.

This happened recently to erotica. In the wake of Fifty Shades of Grey, everyone wanted to write S&M adult novels. For months, there were whole bookcases, not just shelves, devoted to erotic tales in otherwise prudish high street stores. Straight novels could not get a look in. Then suddenly, BANG, the rows of generic grey/black erotic covers vanished, almost overnight. To find them on the high street now, you'll have to search a few dusty high-up shelves somewhere between Fiction A-Z and Romance. S&M erotica is back where it came from: the dungeon. So again, act swiftly or not at all. By the time you notice it's a popular trend, and start to knock out your own bestseller, the bandwagon may have tumbled into a ravine.

Forget that book, and write something new!

This can be the hardest advice to follow when you’ve pinned your hopes on one particular novel, one wonderful group of characters, one high-concept plot that cannot fail.

I initially wrote THE EARL & HIS TIGER for Mills & Boon Historicals. They rejected it. I self-published and have sold over 36,000 downloads so far. That's one way of dealing with rejection.

But as with so many things, the battle-cry for writers these days is, 'Diversify or die!'

If you feel you can't rewrite that book anymore, and are unsure where else to send it anyway, then put the rejected ms aside and write a new story. Knuckle down and do the best job you can. Always finish what you start. Then send the new novel out again to publishers or your agent. If you can demonstrate that you’re more than a one-book writer, it tends to work in your favour, especially with agents who need to keep believing that you are worth representing. New writing also allows you to create much-needed emotional space between yourself and a rejection. It spreads the load, if you like, of emotional angst. Now you have TWO novels to worry about, not one!

However, don’t keep starting new stories rather than improving work that’s been rejected. You should always take the time to fix a story if several people have told you it needs attention and you truly believe it can be salvaged. But don't get hung up on this. It takes most writers several years - and at least three or four novels - to really get into the swing of this novel-writing lark.

It's a complex and often mysterious process, writing a novel, and rejections only serve to underline that point. NOBODY knows for sure what's going to work for readers, what's going to be popular, what's going to sell. You may feel sure your book will sell, but in fact, it's a lottery. If there was some kind of clear criteria to tell us which books are sure hits, and which will bomb, we would have more millionaire writers. As it is, most writers exist in a kind of twilight zone, somewhere between broke and just pulling even. They sell enough to be worth publishing, but not enough to get a poster advert in an underground station. And even they get rejected sometimes. You are NOT alone!

GIRL NUMBER ONE was rejected by over a dozen publishers. I rewrote it, self-published it September 2015, and in its first ten weeks it has sold over 15,000 copies and had 1.5 million page reads on Kindle Unlimited. The moral of this tale? Editors are not infallible judges of saleability.

Besides, getting used to shrugging and starting again is part of an essential process of hardening up that writers need to undergo. So when that unpleasant rejection letter arrives, you can pull a face, eat some chocolate cake, then remind yourself, ‘There’s always the next book.’ 

QUESTION:  Have you found a good way to combat rejection?

Monday, 9 June 2014

Week Seven: Learn To Love Your Synopsis

I've been writing a new synopsis this week, so this topic is of acute interest to me. The discussion that follows is an amalgam of several I have written before on the art of writing a synopsis.

What Is A Synopsis? 

Generally speaking, a synopsis is a short document, sometimes one page, maybe 2-3, in which you briefly describe your main characters and the chief action of your story. Leave out anyone and anything non-essential. It's not a blurb - i.e. cover copy. That merely sets out a scenario without giving you the end result. In the synopsis you must tell the reader not only how it starts, but how it ends. And you're in trouble if you don't actually know by now.


This is a selling document, so write and present it professionally. Check your spelling and punctuation. Try to sound sane. This may be your only chance to showcase your writing skills to a busy agent or editor.

Whatever you do, keep the synopsis easy to read and check that, even if the book is dark, it never feels depressing or dull. If you enjoyed writing your book, let it show in the synopsis. Let your story shine.

Be a great synopsis writer: it's never too soon to start taking your work seriously.


What's the Point of a Synopsis?

Writers hate the synopsis. It interferes with the old illusion that writing fiction is a mysterious creative process, handed to us by a lyre-playing Muse, to be messed with at our peril. It makes our writing feel like a grubby commercial venture.

But you have to tell agents and publishers what's in it for them, just as a blurb tells the reader what to expect inside the covers of a book. Though a synopsis is more than an extended blurb. It has to achieve a number of goals. First, and most importantly, it should tell the person reading it what happens in the book. Note, not what the book is about, per se, but what happens and in what order.

Produce professional-looking synopses

Don't Include Everything

That's trickier than it sounds. Good novels often have sub-plots that weave through the main plot. So should we mention those or leave them out? If they have a genuine bearing on the main plot, they need to be in the synopsis. If not, then we can safely leave them out.

Some synopses are only a page long. With two to three pages, you can afford to mention the milk-maid's dalliance with the master, which provokes the son to leave home and join the army, which makes the wife hate the husband - and the freckle-faced milk-maid - when her beloved boy is subsequently killed in action. Otherwise, just start with the granddaughter packing her bags years later ...

Only mention these subsidiary details in passing. A few words should suffice.

Basically, a synopsis should sketch out the plot, location and main characters without going into too much detail. It should convey genre, where appropriate. Best not to open though with 'This is a funny book.' Keep the slick one-liners for the 3-minute pitch.

But Always Tell Them How It Ends

One common thing writers feel instinctively when describing their stories in advance is that they shouldn't reveal the ending. 'I won't tell you what happens after that ... but it's very exciting.' We don't do that in the synopsis. It's a non-fictional document. It's like packaging. It should tell the buyer what's inside, and how many grams of fat, and is that saturated or Omega-3?

In the synopsis, we tell the editor precisely what happens at the end, and why. Yes, even if it's going to spoil it for them.

Be A Little Imperfect

Having said all that, the synopsis must be a flexible document above all else. It should be constructed like a house in an earthquake zone, to move subtly with changes of mind and heart. It should not resist such changes and tumble down, killing your protagonists in their beds. Agents and publishers have an infuriating tendency to ask for changes. Sometimes they ask for them at the start of the writing process and sometimes halfway through. (Or later, when the book is actually finished.) You will need to be open to those changes, and not have your story so tightly bound together that no daylight can be admitted between plot points.

So the ideal synopsis is a little imperfect: it should err on the side of being too lightly written, kept flexible, with gaps - rather than holes - left for the editor's input, and neither too pithy nor over-ornate. A synopsis should always suggest rather than state baldly.

Keep things flexible

A Collaborative Document

Never forget that your synopsis will become, in many cases, a collaborative document. Writing a novel isn't quite like writing a screenplay, but by the end of the process, a number of different experts - often with clashing views on how a novel or even a synopsis should be written - will have stuck their fingers in the pie of your story and cheerfully wiggled them about. So be prepared for interference and try to view it as helpful in most cases. By the end, you may no longer recognise the novel you intended to write. C'est la vie!

Not Written On Loo Roll

Sadly, the days of the writer as an eccentric genius who goes off into a hotel room for ninety days and emerges with a ground-breaking novel written on a roll of perforated paper are long gone.

The synopsis has become unavoidable for most people, and can be one of the banes of a writer's life. But it represents the key to the first gate of the contract, beyond which a writer may not pass without permission. This may not be ideal for every writer, and there is a strong case for rebellion. But while the people who pay our wages continue to say we have to produce them, it might be wiser simply to capitulate.

QUESTION: do you love or hate writing a synopsis, and have you got any tips on how to do it?

Monday, 2 June 2014

Week Six: Novel Avoidance Syndrome

Okay, huddle up. It's time for an awful truth to be exposed.

Novels do not want to be written.

How silly she is, I hear you cry, novels do not have a mind of their own. Novels are inanimate objects. In fact, they are both invisible and ineffable while still unwritten. Novels come from our own heads, ergo the author must be in command of the novel-writing process, not the novel itself.

The machine gun hammer of keys should be all your brain hears. Not the siren call of new ideas ...

Well, yes. And most of us are in command of our novels, most of the time. But sadly, at some point, if circumstances are right for revolt, the novel may end up leading the author round by the nose.

Novel-In-Charge or Novel Avoidance Syndrome are closely linked, and are both diseases that manifest in various forms, some less serious than others, some positively fatal if allowed to progress unchallenged.

When the novel wrests control from the author, there may be stubborn runaway characters with minds of their own, narratives which demand to be in first person instead of third, plots that won't follow your synopsis, books that refuse to finish, books that refuse to start, and worst of all, those dastardly novels that simply stick their thumbs in their belts partway through and refuse pointblank to be written at all.

Sometimes there's a subtle progression from hiccup to total collapse. The novel does not always make it obvious to the author what's about to happen by manifesting the tricks noted above. Instead, your novel simply creeps away into the back of your head when you're looking the other way, a potentially dangerous shift which allows a space to open up. A space where other ideas - more beguiling, far superior ideas - may begin to take the place of your current novel. Then BANG, you wake up one day and your novel has gone.

There may be other, less obvious warning signs of imminent collapse.

You take more coffee breaks than you should. You stop for unnecessary research. You gaze out of the window. You watch the entire boxset of something vaguely connected to your novel's background. You accept invitations to lunch. You shop online. You tweet all morning and share funny photos on Facebook. You put off writing for a day, then fail to come back the following morning. You suddenly decide to cook a special supper. Every evening. For several hours when you would normally be writing.

If you've spent your precious writing time browsing in the local library, there may be worse problems ahead than a late fine.

This is how the final collapse may happen. Late one evening, after a successful day at the word-face, often when you're feeling on top form and the novel is swimming along nicely, you find yourself reaching for a notepad or the back of an envelope to scribble down an idea which has just flashed through your teeming brain.

Wow, you think. That's the best novel idea since *insert name of Famous Novel here*. I must write this book. But not yet, of course. First I must finish Novel One. Brilliant, two fantastic ideas one after the other. I'm on a roll. What a clever author I am.

The next day, you wake up with this new novel idea still bubbling away in your head. Go away, you say firmly. I'm writing Novel One first. And so you slope off to your desk, or where/however you write, and try to concentrate on today's word count.

But bizarrely the going has become heavy since the day before. Your boots stick in the mud. You may be taking enemy fire. After some valiant attempts to write, you pause, puzzled, and read back what you've written so far.

To your horror, the novel that was racing along superbly now sounds thin. Your great story idea, once so promising, is hollow and superficial. It lacks ... Well, it lacks what Novel Two is clearly bursting with.

You are dismayed. What now? You look at your unfinished typescript, and suddenly you can't face that long trudge through mud to the finish line, through howling wind and rain.

But Novel Two ... Ah now, that's a charming prospect. The sunny uplands of that intriguing first chapter beckon, a story so compulsive it will almost write itself, characters so powerfully drawn you can see that writing award dancing before your eyes.

So you throw Novel One aside, type Chapter One again, and head off into the glorious unknown, whistling a happy tune.

A few weeks or months later, you find yourself reaching for a notepad or the back of an envelope to scribble down the most exhilarating idea for a new novel that you've ever had. Wow, you think. This is bloody brilliant, it's bound to be a pageturner ...


Okay. Here are some ways to deal with Novel Avoidance Syndrome. You learn these as you get more experienced as a writer, mainly from having suffered too many times from lost and broken novels. So here is my approach.

In the early stages, note when you are taking too many breaks from writing, whatever the reason, and change your schedule to push yourself back into the book. Put your head down and write whatever comes out, even if it sounds like garbage to your ears. It may be garbage, but equally it may not. Your creative brain may be out of kilter and you can no longer tell. Just stick it down anyway. The theory is, you can't rewrite what hasn't been written.

And ignore pleadings from the soul that the book is flawed in some way. These are often dream voices from a weary psyche, begging you to stop working so it can rest. If the book is genuinely broken, promise yourself you will start again. BUT NOT UNTIL YOU HAVE FINISHED THE WHOLE NOVEL. Only when you have finished will you - or another reader - be able to see if this 'broken plot' thing is an illusion of the writing process, or a true problem.

And new novel ideas? The ones that come in the night, or while staring out of a rainy window?

Always keep a notepad on hand.
Write the new novel plot down in a notepad, or type it up in a few spare moments, then put that new idea away AND DO NOT THINK OF IT AGAIN.

Exercise self-discipline, even if you think of creative writing as something floaty and marvellous. It really isn't. It's actually hard work. It's a job like any other, like collecting the bins or doing someone's annual accounts.

Tell yourself, There is nothing wrong with the novel I am writing. Repeat after me, one novel at a time. Finish what you start, regardless. Consider the novel writing process as akin to clearing your plate. Eat those lovely greens. Type THE END, and then you can get that notepad out and type Chapter One of your new novel.

Teach yourself to succeed by teaching yourself to finish. Visualize yourself finishing your current book and starting a new one. Don't despair, don't give up. Keep on truckin'.

And if all that fails, don't ask me to read your unfinished book and explain why you no longer want to write it. I've told you. It's all in the mind.

QUESTION: Have you ever suffered from Novel Avoidance Syndrome, and if so, how did you beat it? Or are you in its grip right now?

Answers in the comment box below please. Thanks for taking part in the debate!