Room for one more?

Come on in, the beer’s lovely

Imagine a room that’s packed to capacity. Bodies pressed against the wall, drinks getting spilled, no room to wriggle through. Imagine everyone it is brilliant, fascinating, talented, and interesting. The air is thick with witticisms, insights, and bon mots. Now imagine you’re desperate to get into this room. You’re standing outside clutching your ticket, but you can’t find a place to squeeze in. Is there any space for one more?

I’m back from the Harrogate crime festival, and still in the mopey downtime of returning to the blank screen after days of fun, books, booze, and amazing people. So the room above is both a literal one (though it wasn’t quite as jammed as that) and a metaphor for the current state of crime writing. Among my other thoughts on coming home (why can’t every day be such fun; but it’s probably a good thing because I’d never sleep/get any work done; why on earth does everyone keep saying ‘oh, you were drunk last night’; I’m so lucky to have a publishing deal and with a great company; everyone is so nice and friendly etc), is this: I sometimes despair at the sheer volume of amazing crime writing that already exists.

Quite apart from established UK super-sellers, there’s all the American-based big-hitters There’s the backlist of the brilliant but dead like Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle (can we put a moratorium on them getting read? They don’t exactly need the sales). Then there’s the new debuts setting the world on fire. How is there any room for someone like me, with yet another crime thriller to add to the pile? And then there’s the people getting huge deals now, snapping at my heels. And someone in a room somewhere writing what will be the Next Big Thing. And this is even before you move out of crime to all the other amazing books that are being published in other genres. I work for a crime writing association. I can read a book in three hours. I don’t have another job, don’t watch a lot of TV, and I go to bed late. If I can’t get through all these books and writers, then who is reading them? Who’s going to read mine? Is there any room? Oh dear, I think I’m experiencing a post-Harrogate panic.  It may be another Irrational Writer Worry (see posts to come), but it’s something I do mull over. Is there space for us all to get by and enjoy doing our own thing, while welcoming more people in? Will the bar run dry of booze? Will it start serving residents only? Will the card machine break down? (Yes, yes, and yes, in the case of Harrogate).

I’ve written before how incredibly nice everyone in crime is (except when they remember what you’ve said drunk and cast it up to you). This is true. No one is trying to keep you out of that room; rather they’re waving to you from the other side saying, ‘Come on in, I’ve got you a drink’.  It’s incredible, when you think about it, to be like this. I suppose this is because most people write from love of the words, because they can’t do anything else.  If only everyone in the world was so welcoming and open, perfectly happy with just some books and a drink. I feel very lucky to be part of such an industry now, and to be waiting in the queue for my chance to join the published authors. I’m grateful to them for making room. After all, the world can only be a better place with more good words in it (albeit words that are about hideous death, mutilation, and torture in the case of crime writing).

How to get published: Stand at the bar and smile

I’ve said this before, but a lot can change in a year. This time last summer I had a full-time job, was commuting three hours a day, and felt I was getting nowhere with my writing or my career in general. I’d finished a book and was submitting to agents, and getting rejected. I was close to completing another book, written on the off-chance, which I was vaguely thinking of calling The Fall. I had no contact with the writing world, except for the one or two writing conferences and events I had tentatively begun to attend. I then spent most of the summer either in Africa, still thinking I might try to work in international development, or unable to read/write/type for weeks when I came home with a busted right eye. It’s fair to say I couldn’t have expected that a year on, I’d be sitting here looking at proofs of what’s going to be my first published book.

Is there a point to this, I hear you cry? Stop going on about it, you smug git! No no no, there is a point. On Thursday I’m heading up to the Theakston’s Old Peculier Harrogate Crime Festival (in Harrogate, unsurprisingly). It’s similar to the one I went to in Bristol in May, only apparently more boozy (GOD HELP US is all I can say if this is true). I’m really looking forward to it, not least because of all the very lovely and fun crime writers I’ve now met. Published writers are unbelievably friendly and helpful. They ask all about your book and are genuinely pleased for you. They don’t go to these kinds of events and hang out behind a velvet rope drinking Cristal, while minions bring them Kettle Chips. There aren’t any minions. There’s no Kettle Chips. There definitely isn’t champagne. Just nice, friendly people with a bewildering tolerance for alcohol.

So this post’s ‘How to Get Published’ tip is: Go to events. There are lots of writing events on where you can meet writers, agents, and editors. You can get priceless advice on your work, and more importantly than this, by a sort of social osmosis you will gain a much clearer idea of how to sell your book in the current market. You’ll get an idea of what editors are looking for. Also, it will be fun, and that’s always a good reason to do something. It may be possible, or even desirous, to write in a vacuum, but unless you’re an unsung genius who’s been living up a pillar for ten years, it’s not possible any more to get published in one. You have to understand the market, at least a bit.

If you’re interested in writing crime, I would highly recommend going to Harrogate and also the Bristol Crimefest. For writing in general, the York Festival is brilliant as it’s specifically for aspiring writers. Apart from that you’ll find day and evening events run by the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, the London Writers’ Club, and London Writers Club. You can also go to book-related events like the Shoreditch House Literary Salon, Literary Death Match, True Stories Told Live, and the one-off festivals and talks that go on at places like Foyles, Daunts, and City University. A lot of these are in London, yes, but that’s the nature of publishing. Get out there and talk to people about your book – agents and editors often go to things like this with the direct aim of finding new authors. So go! Practice talking about your book in a few short sentences, figure out what genre it is (see previous post), then smile and be friendly. If you see a thirsty-looking dishevelled figure, buy them a drink. It’s probably a famous writer.

Can’t wait for Harrogate now. If you’re going, I’ll be the Irish girl at the bar with the drink in my hand.

Whose genre is it anyway?

Or how to stop prevaricating and get published (part 1).

We’re odd people, writers, aren’t we. We spend years writing a book, tearing it up, sticking it back together, and once it’s finally finished and we could send it out to agents, we start thinking up a whole list of spurious reasons not to show it to anyone. Tying ourselves in knots, coming up with ridiculous questions and worries. Anything to put off having to get the work out there, being judged, being read.

Last year I spent a lot of time doing this myself. Worrying about questions like, but what if my family get upset? I don’t know what other books to compare it to in my covering letter!  It’s twenty thousand words too long/ too short! And the real kicker, but I don’t know what genre it is!

The good news is that you can get over this stage of spurious-questioning, or prevaricating, as my mother would call it. After all, as the great Anne Enright says, only bad writers think their work is really good. A good place to start is reading this book by Harry Bingham, a writer who also runs the Writers’ Workshop consultancy. Although I read it after I signed with Headline, it does a brilliant job of applying solid common sense to those pre-submission jitters. I’ll also write some blog posts which I hope will help with the trickiest of these ridiculous questions.

First up, genre. This is indeed a difficult one, especially as most new writers don’t seem to consider it at all, instead starting somewhere round the general-literaturey-fictiony mark. Many of us are in fact a little resistant to having to categorise our books. Snobby, even. What, pigeon-hole my staggeringly original work of unalloyed genius? How dare you!

But hold your pretentious horses there. Deciding on a genre could be the key you’re looking for, that will lift your book from a pseudo-literary collection of ramblings, to the honed and gripping MS that will have agents and editors screaming ‘Yes! Yes! I must have you at once!’  But how do you work out what genre it is? Try asking yourself these questions and it might become clearer.

Does something a bit sinister happen?

My book has been bought as crime, but this came as a surprise to me, I suppose because I thought I’d written something a bit general-literaturey-fictiony. Little did I know how wrong I was. I assumed crime was about dead bodies, emotionally limited detectives, and crazed killers who narrate in tortured italics. Of course, it is about these things, but crime is a very broad genre encompassing thrillers, mystery, procedurals, psychological, etc. Basically if anything a bit sinister happens, you’re in. And being in crime is good, because it’s hugely popular, and many agents and editors are looking to take on more in this genre. So don’t shy away from placing yourself right at the crime scene (sorry).

What’s the difference between a thriller and a crime? I don’t think anyone knows for sure, but I’ve heard it said that a crime novel is more ‘who did this awful crime’ and a thriller is more ‘will the character escape from the awful crime’. Either way, don’t worry too much.

Are there sex scenes?

Now, of course many books have sex scenes. But if a large part of the book features significant looks and breathless, lingering bedroom action (or stable action, if you’re Jilly Cooper), it’s probably a romance. Modern romances can include fairly graphic stuff, it seems, without getting to full-on erotica. Or perhaps a better thing to ask yourself is: is the sex scene (or the chaste cliff-top snog, depending on your style) a key part of the plot, or more for atmosphere? Again, the term romance is very broad nowadays.

I would say chick-lit is a subsection of romance. The distinction seems to be if you’re meant to laugh while reading, and not just at all the sex in barns and helicopters and on tennis courts and in orchestra pits and… (must stop reading Jilly Cooper).  Check out the Romantic Novelists’ Association to see how broad romance is nowadays, and be sure to ask someone who knows more about it than I do (like the lovely Julie Cohen, over at her blog

Can you imagine your book will mainly be read by women?

Of course, most books in general are read by women, but ‘women’s fiction’ is a sort of category that seems to include bestselling issue-led books like Jodi Picoult, The Lovely Bones, The Memory-Keeper’s Daughter, etc. Think angst, families, hidden secrets. The cover is probably a woman standing beside a lake with her back to the camera, looking angsty. These books often feature crimes, but more as a catalyst for all that page-turning angst and drama. May also include many sex scenes, but probably with less focus on the actual mechanics of it. Think heaving emotions, not bosoms.

Is it set in the past?

How far back counts as historical? Someone asked me this during the week but I actually have no idea (I hope you realise I’m just making this up as I go along) I would guess maybe anything out of your own lifetime could count (the seventies, for me? I don’t know). Answers on a postcard, please (or blog comment). There’s also categories of historical crime and historical romance. Stories which move between past and present, with separate narratives, are often called timeslip novels. These are quite hot at the moment so maybe have a read of a few if you’re writing in this area (for example, those by the equally lovely Tom Harper, who switched to these from more straightforward historical adventures

Is it set in a galaxy far far away?

I don’t know much about sci-fi or fantasy, I’ll admit. (Or any of this. Making it up as I go along, like I said) but I’m sure if you’re writing in this genre you know more than I do anyway. There’s also steampunk, a new sort of historical-fantasy genre, so check that out if you’re interested in this area. Always good to be writing the next hot thing. Additionally, a genre called ‘dark fantasy’ seems to have cropped up in my local Waterstone’s. As far as I can tell this involves falling in love with vampires/werewolves/otherworldly beings with fangs and hot bods.

Is it for teenagers or children?

There are quite defined age-ranges for children’s and Young Adult fiction, which again I know nothing about (what do I know? A good question. Not much). I mention it because you may not realise that what you’re writing is not actually an adult novel, but instead Young Adult (for example, do you have a teenage narrator?); or conversely, that you haven’t as you thought written a book for teens at all, but in fact an adult book featuring young characters. Always worth considering if you’re having trouble finding a genre.

Are you massively clever and intellectual? Do you actually genuinely enjoy reading the London Review of Books, or do you just let it pile up in your house while you read Heat magazine instead? (see blog posts to come…)

If this is the case, your work is most likely literary fiction. Ironically this is probably the hardest to get right, but it’s also the genre most new writers seem to be working in (or think they are). What’s a literary novel? I suppose it means a very good book that defies genre and category, but is simply very well-written and significant. Think hard about this. Is your book amazing and beautifully written? Are you staggeringly clever and talented? Are you sure? If not, have a think about genre and it might get your submissions back on track.


Good luck! There’s a fun wizard here which may also help:

Competition Time

….Which, aficionados will know, is also the title of a Father Ted episode.

I’ve blogged on here about how I think it’s possible to get published in a year. Believe me, I’m not the kind of peppy optimist you’d want to slap round the head with your unpublished MS, so I really mean it. To help you out with this, because I’m nice that way, I’ve put together some lists of resources that I think will be useful. First up: writing competitions. These are incredibly important, as agents and editors will be scouting the results to find new talent. Winning isn’t really important here. Get short or long-listed and you could find editors and agents chasing you down.

There are many short-story comps out there, but if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool novelist like me you might find the short story baffling. It’s possible that (also like me) you’ll be rubbish at it. The forms are very different. So I’ve put together a list of the new-writing novel competitions I know of.

Ones that don’t include a publishing deal in the prize:

Contrary to what you might think, it’s probably more useful to be in one of these. The reason is that if you win a prize with a small publishing house, you could be tied into an unadvantageous contract, and you might find they don’t do the best job with the cover and editing. In those below, you won’t get a guaranteed deal, but you might find the attention you receive is even more valuable.

The Mail on Sunday have run a competition for the past few years to submit the opening page of a novel. No details appear online but this is the gist of what appears in the paper:

CWA Debut Dagger (disclaimer: I work for the CWA, but it’s still a great competition with an impressive track-record of getting people published) It’s for crime/thrillers only and opens in October each year.

Mslexia: a women-only competition where you submit the first 5,000 words. Open now!

Harry Bowling Prize: first chapter and synopsis of a novel with any urban setting. Runs every two years – also currently open!

Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize: another one for women, aged over 21. Has closed for this year.

Lightship First Chapter competition: Has just closed for this year and I’m not clear if it does include publication, but seems worthwhile

Competitions that include getting published:

I’d advise carefully reading the terms and conditions for these ones. You may not actually want to be published with a smaller press in the end.

Chapter One Promotions (book doesn’t have to be finished as they’ll help you)

Virginia Prize (also for women, closing soon):

Dundee book prize:

Bridgehouse run several book competitions:

Brit Writers’ Award: there has been a fair bit of controversy over this new prize, but it’s worth keeping up with.

Unbound press – currently open:

Nemesis Publishing: also currently open

Impress prize: closed in June for this year

Macmillan new writing: a new venture where you can submit directly to Macmillan (so not really a competition). Currently closed but will open again later in the year

So there you go – lots of opportunities. It’s 5 July and the summer’s stretching ahead. If you write for an hour a day with no editing, you could be halfway through a novel by September. Get going!

With apologies for the overly positive tone above. I’m much more moany in real life.