Thursday, November 24, 2016

What Mentorship and Guidance Has Looked Like For Me

This post is inspired by the Twitter feed of Sarah Maria Griffin, who you need to be following.

In the latest in my occasional series of What Things Look Like (OK, by latest I mean 'second'), and with all due hat tips to Sarah and her epic wisdom, here is what mentorship has been for me. The following list refers to actions of many, many people.

1. Liking a tweet.

2. Responding thoughtfully and in detail to my unsuccessful submissions. I am grateful.

3. Reminding me I can do this (this doesn't always have to be writer friends, although it frequently is. My most enthusiastic cheerleaders include a sociologist and a personal trainer/singer).

4. Nachos and tea.

5. An invitation to a book club.

6. An invitation to another book club.

7. Saying 'I really liked your piece' after I read it.

8. A burrito.

9. Several messages saying "You got this." There's something about those words, their blank confidence.

10. Clapping after I read at open mic events.

11. Going to open mic events I'm reading at!

12. A book dedication. (Cheers, Paul and Paula!)

13. Reading my entire manuscript and giving me feedback. I left this one for last, because it is so huge and so much appreciated, but also there are many, many steps towards it that are validating and important.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Sisters and Lies by Bernice Barrington: Review

I've been waiting for Bernice Barrington to have a novel published since we first took a writing class together and I fell in love with her writerly voice. Her debut thriller, Sisters and Lies, did not disappoint.

The novel opens with an event everyone dreads - a night time phone call with bad news. Rachel's sister Evie has been involved in a car crash in London. She is in a coma and may not survive. Can Rachel drop everything. . . ?

Rachel finds a series of mysteries waiting for her. Who is this guy who claims to be her sister's boyfriend? Why hasn't Rachel heard of him? Where are Evie's friends? And why was Evie driving without a licence? Was her accident really an accident?

These mysteries torment Rachel, but if she doesn't solve them, she and Evie are both in even more danger.

I loved a lot of things about this book, but the main one was the emotional lives of the characters and the skill with which they were drawn. Evie's life (and Rachel's, which Rachel cares about less) are as multi-faceted and real as any life. Alternating between Rachel's investigations and Evie's memories, we witness grief, loss, lust, betrayal, revenge (attempted and successful), denial, deception, jealousy and love. With so many seething feelings, there are two questions - will Rachel find the truth, and can the good stuff in life win out over so much bad?

The portrayal of Evie and Rachel's different experiences of grieving their mother is especially strong, as is Rachel's emotional state while her sister is in a coma. One of my pet hates in novels is when protagonists manage to be flawlessly clear-thinking and rational during a crisis - Rachel reacts like a human, and it makes her character all the more compelling.

I was sure I had guessed the ending. Then I thought I hadn't. Then I thought maybe I had. . . maybe I was still right. . . and then it turned out that I was all wrong. The final page of the novel has a serious sting in the tail, and I'm still thinking about it. . .

Bernice has pulled off a great, resonant read, a strong and pacey thriller, and a kick-ass study of a family in crisis. Sisters and Lies launches tonight in Dublin. For more about Bernice's journey to publication, check out this piece on Bernice tweets @beebarrington.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. This has not affected my review.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Mountains to Sea Festival: A YA-ish Recap

The Mountains to Sea festival in Dun Laoghaire takes place annually in March and usually rocks. This year I headed out there on Saturday to take in two events - a YA Masterclass panel, and a session on the business of children's books.

The YA Masterclass was moderated by Dave Rudden (author of the newly released Knights of the Borrowed Dark), featuring Sarah Crossan (who has just been nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Medal for her amazing novel in verse, One), Sheena Wilkinson (author of Taking Flight, Still Falling and most recently, Name Upon Name, and a past winner of the CBI Book of the Year), and Deirdre Sullivan (author of the Prim Trilogy and Needlework, and the only YA author ever nominated for European Prize for Literature).  A distinguished group.

Masters' degrees in writing

Interestingly, all four authors at the event have worked as teachers and three have completed Masters' degrees in creative writing (Deirdre Sullivan holds a Masters' degree in drama). They assured us that neither was mandatory. On this subject, Sarah Crossan had a lot to say - that while doing a Masters' degree validates you as a writer, there is a sense of pressure to do a Masters and that most Masters' degrees in writing focus heavily on writing literary fiction for adults and can be at risk of genre snobbery. Sheena Wilkinson agreed that her Masters was not the most crucial step in her journey to becoming a professional writer and stressed the influence of the Arvon Foundation.

Deirdre Sullivan says that it is very possible to take your writing seriously while alone in your bedroom - and she wasn't accepted on to a Masters' degree in writing because "they knew what I was at. . ."

Issue-driven fiction

All three panelists agreed that writing books primarily to tackle an issue generally led to difficult writing and not necessarily good books. Sheena Wilkinson says that even when her books deal with issues, they are grounded in characters - one of her novels features a teenage pregnancy, but she says she didn't decide to "handle" teenage pregnancy as an issue; when she pictured her character two years on from the first book, she had a baby bump.

Sarah Crossan said that we don't care about issues as much as we care about people, and Deirdre Sullivan stressed the importance of empathising with your characters, even when you disagree with them or dislike their actions.

Writing process

Deirdre Sullivan was commissioned to write her first novel, so her experience wasn't typical. As she wrote, she sent her chapters to her editor and later they worked on the entire novel. She points out that for most writers, the fantasy of writing your novel in your friend's villa in Tuscany and high-fiving John Banville when you write a particularly great sentence is not what happens.

Sheena Wilkinson's process has changed over the years - her first published novel, Taking Flight, wasn't the first novel she finished but she calls it the first good novel that she finished, which gives me hope :) She wrote while working full-time, commuting, and dealing with an illness in her close family - she even wrote next to a hospital bed. It was an escape, she said, but also it illustrated how seriously she took her writing.

She also researched, wrote and edited Name Upon Name in three months by planning it carefully - one month each for research, writing and editing, and a retreat for a portion of the editing phase.

Sarah Crossan noted that you only know how to write the books that you've already written - the next one may be very different. She wrote The Weight of Water in bursts, Breathe and Resist involved heavy edits, and with Apple and Rain she perfected the first three chapters - defying a lot of conventional writing advice - and then the rest flowed.

She also talked about hitting the wall with a book (Dave, our genial host, said it happens to him at 41,000 words) and how it is like a marathon runner hitting the wall - you need to keep going.

Dave Rudden then shared that he once wrote 21,000 words in a single weekend and was hospitalised with a stress-related illness. None of the panel recommended this approach, thankfully.

Editing process

Deirdre Sullivan likened her editor's role in her first book to a doula - coaxing her gently through the book's birth. Sheena Wilkinson described various edits she has experienced, from the light to the harrowing, but the whole panel agreed that the ideal editor guides and steers the book without impacting upon the author's vision. Sarah Crossan said that it is possible to over-edit a book and lose something of the book's magic in the process.

Deirdre Sullivan said that as a writer, you can fight for things in your book that your editor doesn't like, and that if you're not willing to fight for something, it shouldn't be in your book.


Sarah Crossan hates research, which shocked me because her novel One seemed so meticulously researched. . .  turns out that she did hate research until One, when her research into the lives of conjoined twins was so compelling to her that she loved it.

Deirdre Sullivan's first trilogy, the Prim series, required light research, and her most recent novel Needlework required research into tattooing, her main character's passion. She raised an excellent point - she researched the topic using mostly sources to which her character would have had access. I hadn't thought of that before, but it's incredibly important when writing young characters especially.

Sheena Wilkinson loves research and her difficulty can be knowing when to stop. She raised the issue of tone versus details, saying that the protagonist of Name Upon Name (set in 1916) can't just be a modern teenager in a long dress - as a product of her time, she may have thoughts and ideas that seem alien to modern readers, but that this kind of authenticity is more important than details (although details are also important!).

The Business of Children's Books

This panel was moderated by Grainne Clear of Little Island and featured Hilary Delamere, a literary agent with The Agency in London, AJ Grainger, YA novelist and editor at Walker Books, David Maybury, Media Development Director at Scholastic, and Charlotte Eyre of The Bookseller. Another distinguished group.

Hilary Delamere discussed the role of an agent, which she feels is to build relationships, to support authors and to decode communications between all of the key players. She added that agents' opinions are subjective and can be affected by issues like their career stage - their openness to growing their list may change.

AJ Grainger advised that writers should do research and know the market, but not chase trends, as they're usually 'over' by the time they hit the shelves!

Use the warm and supportive children's books community - especially in Ireland, David Maybury noted, organisations like Children's Books Ireland run great events and access to authors and professionals is quite available.

Grainne Clear noted the difficulties of marketing books aimed at younger audiences (pre-YA) when the purchasing decisions are not being made by the readers themselves but by parents or other adults in their lives.

Charlotte Eyre said that the digital revolution hasn't had the impact on children's publishing that as feared in the past, as parents remain committed to reading as a pastime for their children, and to reducing screen time.

Hilary Delamere also mentioned the paradox of large advances - on the one hand, they're considered a marker of success but the hype can build expectations to levels that an author can't meet, and so they are almost a failure before they start. An interesting perspective on the classic author dream! She also talked about career longevity and how writers don't need to reinvent themselves, but to renew - to do new things but remain recognisably 'them'.

Social media as a tool for selling books was seen as a mixed blessing - while effective in many cases, it was pointed out by several panelists that social media hype does not equal book sales and that time spent on social media must be weighed up against the opportunity cost of writing time lost. David Maybury pointed out that many social networks are closed to younger people so authors can't connect directly with their readers.

Looking to the future, the panelists suspect that faith in domestic YA writing talent will overtake keenness to buy major American titles, and that books for Middle Grade readers will increase in popularity (possibly as YA plateaus). Hilary Delamere said that the 'next big thing' is very often a surprise.

As to advice for new authors, the usual advice surfaced - follow submission guidelines, research the market but don't slavishly follow it, a social media presence is a positive thing but it shouldn't detract from writing.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Three Things Writers Are Supposed To Hate, and Why I Love Them

A photo posted by Ellen Brickley (@brickleyelle) on

 1. Decaffeinated drinks

There is a stereotype that writers are powered by caffeine, and given how many writers are trying to write while having a day job, raising kids, keeping their home from falling apart, caring for elderly relatives, or indeed all of the above, it's no surprise that a lot of creative folk are running on coffee.

I've discovered that I'm quite caffeine sensitive, so I drink as little of it as I can (hence the pink tea from my blog title - I drink a lot of herbal and fruit teas). Decaffeinated black tea is my new fuel of choice and I love that delicious builders' tea taste without the accompanying heart palpitations and jitters. It's difficult to type while measuring your pulse on a fitness tracker to see if you're dying or not, because of some tea. Ask me how I know this.

2. Querying

I admit I am part of the problem here - check out my pre-querying fingernails on my last post. Writers are supposed to hate querying, and I can understand why. It's scary to condense your work to a query letter, sample pages and a synopsis. The possibility of rejection looms large. "Tread softly because you tread on my dreams," said Yeats and lots of people who just hit 'send'.

But honestly, querying is brilliant.

Everyone who has queried a novel has a dream, to one extent or another. Some of us have been dreaming for a very long time. Some people's dreams have younger legs. But we send our work out into the world because we hope that the echo that comes back will be louder than any sound we could have made on our own. We send because we want something to happen.

While my queries are out in the world, something could happen literally at any time. I mean, because of time differences, I could wake up at 3am for a square of chocolate (everyone does that, right?) and find an email from an agent. Anything is possible but while you're querying, anything is possible now.

Totally worth sacrificing a few pretty fingernails for, I think.

3. Editing

One of my favourite quotes about writing is from Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo (I know, I like something Nano-related. Shocker!). It is
Run whooping through the valleys of your imagination.
Beautiful, isn't it? What a fabulous way to describe the joy of first drafts.

But editing - polishing prose, rearranging scenes, doing heavy lifting of material from one part of the book to another, killing darlings - is the karmic price we pay for all of the revelry in the imagination valleys, right?

Nope. I love editing. I may like the second draft more than the first draft.

  • The material is there, and all I have to do is fix it. The pressure to create magic from thin air has been relieved but I can still shape the work as I wish. Love it.
  • It's easier - although not easy - to quantify how long work will take and set goals. 'I will revise Chapter 3 at lunchtime today', or 'I will check the whole manuscript for references to a character I got rid of', or 'I will  re-read the whole thing this weekend and make notes on what to change.' I find those goals easier to stick to than 'I will get Petra and Kat to the party and the confrontation will happen.' A routine emerges much more readily.
  • I can make the book better. I can fiddle about with sentences, and then put them back the way they were. Editing is a creative act, as many metaphors about smelting and crucibles and fire will attest.

But I still complain about them. Because otherwise, what on earth would I tweet about?

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Beginning To Query: Five Practical Steps To Get Started

A photo posted by Ellen Brickley (@brickleyelle) on

Disclaimer: I am not an agent or an industry insider - this is a querying writer's perspective on creating a system for querying. 

I had nice fingernails once. They were nice enough that I gave a crap about painting them to match my outfit, sometimes. (Not often, like, but sometimes. I am famously bad at being a woman. I once tried to file my nail with the side of two euro coin. It mostly worked).
Then I began to query my novel and, well, you can see what happened. After not biting my nails for four years, I started again, and have now taken to painting the inelegant stubs you see pictured on the right, in the hope that seeing nail polish will make me stop biting them. Again. Guys, I'm nearly 32.

But I don't regret it for a second. Querying is an adventure, it's a necessary step for the vast majority of writers seeking a book deal, and I will genuinely miss it when it's over. But we can talk about my weird masochistic tendencies another time.

If you haven't queried before, here are some tips to get started:

1. Start a spreadsheet. 

I am not kidding - you will need it. I'm being very selective in which agents I query - I don't believe in the scattergun approach and I'm only querying agents I really want to work with, but that is still a *lot* of agents and I need some way to keep track of everything. My own spreadsheet has the following columns:

Status (have I queried yet? If so, what date?)
What to send (most UK agents ask for a query letter, a short synopsis and the first three chapters, or the first 30 pages, or the first 50. Some want page numbers or specific fonts. No way I'm going to keep this straight in my head for more than two or three agencies)
Why The reason why I've chosen to query this agent.

Some agents' websites will include a usual timeframe in which you can expect to hear back, or after which you can assume the response is a no. Some *very* nice agents give you permission to chase them by email if you haven't heard within 8 weeks, or 12 weeks, which is incredibly useful information to have (most agents don't allow this, which is fair, so it's great to have an easy way to check which ones do). I usually pop this info into the Status section, which is where the date I sent my query will go later.

2. Find some agents and populate the spreadsheet

This is probably the most fiddly and time-consuming part, but it's also quite a lot of fun - you are trying to hunt down awesome people who might like your book! Yay!

Methods I've used to find agents:
  • The acknowledgements section of books I've read that are similar to mine
  • Twitter profiles, websites and blogs of writers whose work is similar to mine
  • The hashtag #MSWL (ManuScript Wish List - where industry professionals share their wish lists)
  • Google (YA + literary agents + UK/Ireland or writer name + agent)
  • The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook
  • Asking agented friends the name of their agent - more on this later 
Once you've found some agents, start filling in your spreadsheet.

Agent: Kate McAgent
Agency: McAgent Associates
What to send: Query, 30 pages and synopsis
Why: Reps Author I Really Like/Love her blog/Looking for YA with small town setting

3. Write the query letter

There is a metric ton of resources out there about query letters. The format for UK and US agents seems slightly different (from what I've seen, US agents like more information in the book and less about the author, and UK agents the reverse) and lots of agents have their own preferences (which you will have noted in your handy spreadsheet during your research stage).

I particularly like the sample format given here by YA agent Gemma Cooper of the Bent Agency (who should be on your spreadsheet if you write YA, btw).

4. Get someone to read your query letter and give you feedback

Ideally, this should be someone who has written at least one successful query (by successful, I mean 'has garnered at least one request for the full manuscript', as this is what a query letter is for). If you don't know any such person (and can't afford to hire one - Big Smoke Writing Factory in Dublin, off the top of my head, offer a query evaluation service for writers of children's and YA fiction), find some queries online to compare with yours, and ask your nitpicky friend to look it over. Everyone has a nitpicky friend. If you don't, I'll be your nitpicky friend! Hello. We are friends now.

If anyone you know has read your novel, they may have great feedback on your query - especially about whether or not it's an accurate representation of your book. My query letter has one jokey bit in it, because my book has quite a few jokey bits, but my book is also a realistic contemporary YA novel set in a miserable, rainy small town, so if my query letter was actually out-and-out funny, it would misrepresent the book (aside: when I was writing this book, if anyone asked me what I was writing about, I would say, with a straight face, 'I'm writing about the mysterious death of a teenager in a small town. It's a comedy' and wait to see what their faces did) (Further aside: Do you still want me to be your nitpicky friend?).

Once you have your query, tailor it for each agent. This is when your 'why' column becomes very useful, as if you have a reason to want to work with an agent, it may well be that the reason will go both ways and the agent also needs to know it. Plus, it reminds you why you think these professionals are awesome and why you want to work with them, which you may need to counter the butterflies in your tummy as you prepare to query.

Or it may make it worse, and this is where your fingernails are in danger.

5. Create a lot of folders on your desktop/Google Drive/Dropbox

I get that this is incredibly unsexy. ('Spreadsheets and folders? And to think I chose being a writer instead of an accountant. . . '). But trust me.

Remember how we talked about agencies wanting slightly different things? Personally I do not want to send agents any files with long names and I don't want to mix up query letters. So I create a folder for each agent with their personal query letter, with their personal sample material tailored to their requirements. It means I can find what I've sent to whom at a glance, and I don't have to send anyone a file called Ripple_Effect_Sample_Chapters_1-3_With_Title_Page_And_Page_Numbers_Kate_McAgent, or risk sending a file with a title page and page numbers to an agent who says they don't want them. Instead I go to Kate McAgent's folder and attach the file that has a sensible name like 'The Ripple Effect_Sample_Chapters_Ellen Brickley.'

It's not a perfect system - I have made mistakes - but it works pretty well.

. . . and now? There's nothing else I can suggest that will allow you to put off sending it any longer. Make sure your novel is as good as it can be, finalise your synopsis, polish your query one last time and hit send!

Then update your spreadsheet. You'll be really glad when you've been hitting refresh on your inbox for two straight weeks and you check when you might be likely to hear something.

Agent: Kate McAgent
Agency: McAgent Associates
Status: Query sent 1st January - if no response by the 31st assume it's a no
What to send: Query, 30 pages and synopsis
Why: Reps Author I Really Like/Love her blog/Looking for YA with small town setting

I was telling fibs before. This is when your fingernails are really, properly in trouble.