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Impostor Syndrome

My experience of this beast

Impostor syndrome is the little voice in our heads saying, ‘Are you really good enough? Have you got enough experience to do that? Do you even know what you’re talking about? Surely there is someone out there who is better at this than you? Shouldn’t you go learn some more skills before you attempt this?’

Such fun.

This little voice crops up at odd times. Obviously, every time we do something new or step outside our comfort zones, especially if this move is in some way public. But it can also crop up midway through a project we’ve been acing, at the end of a speech we’ve worked on for ages, when you’re passed the slip of paper at a graduation ceremony that LITERALLY TELLS YOU THAT YOU’VE DONE SOMETHING YOU SHOULD BE PROUD OF.

Sigh.

Even now, I can feel this little voice creeping in as I write this blog post. ‘Anna, who are you to talk about impostor syndrome? Leave that to the more experienced writers, leave it to someone who knows way more about psychology and creativity. You don’t really know what you’re talking about, do you?’

But this is exactly the reason I feel like maybe it’s okay for me to talk about impostor syndrome – because I feel it ALL THE TIME. Every time I reach for my laptop, every time I finish a writing session, every time I think of a new idea – this little voice pipes up. Sometimes it’s not too loud and I can bat it away, but sometimes it’s grabbed a megaphone and will not shut the heck up.

IT DIDN’T WANT ME TO START

I took a long time to start writing – you can read a bit more about that here. I always wanted to write but could never seem to get off the starting block. I had ideas but always felt like I didn’t have the skill to execute them.

There were two main things impostor syndrome was shouting at me – ‘you’re not good enough’ and ‘your writing is awful.’

They’re interlinked, but slightly different. Feeling that I, myself, was not good enough, was a pretty standard feeling for me before I started writing about 10ish years ago. I had super low self-esteem for a number of reasons, but I’d just started to go to counselling to try to quiet the negative self-talk in my head.

That gave me pause when I thought about trying to write down my ideas and ‘you’re not good enough’ began running in a loop in my head. I was chucking out the old beliefs I’d had about myself, and maybe writing down the stories in my head was another way I could prove to myself that I could do something.

But after I cleared the road block of feeling inadequate as a human being, there was still ‘your writing is awful’ waiting in the wings. Dang.

One thing I did A LOT those days was write for about an hour, really enjoy myself, and then when I finished, I’d read what I’d written. BIG MISTAKE. I honestly think that everything I write is hideous unless I’ve given it a bit of space. I’m in awe of people who edit as they go, like they aren’t constantly wailing and rending their clothes over how awful what they’ve written is.

I need time to let my writing become separate from me, and then I can come back to it and make it better. But back then, I didn’t know this could happen. I read my first stumbling attempts immediately and was so disheartened by how far they were from the glory I had in my head.

I’m an avid reader, and one thing I was doing was comparing my shitty first drafts to the finished works of authors I was so totally in awe of. I wanted my writing to be like Joanne Harris’s – effortlessly magical and captivating – when actually it was just so absolutely hideous that I couldn’t bear to do anything but delete it straight away.

‘Your writing is awful’ held me back for a long time. I felt like I had to write something perfect or nothing at all.

It was actually Joanne Harris who took the power out of this poisonous whisper. She said in an interview something like, ‘write the story that’s in your heart.’ And I thought to myself, I can do that. I couldn’t write something wonderful and perfect, but I could write something true that came from the very core of me.

I started writing, and I haven’t looked back. Occasionally, these two whispers still rear their heads but I’ve been doing this for too long now, have utterly fallen in love with the process of creating stories, that I can’t listen to them. I’m not going to give up something that brings me so much joy and freedom.

This would be my advice for you if you’re struggling to silence impostor syndrome for long enough to get started – just try. Don’t tell anyone about it, but take ten minutes a day and write something down. Pick the idea you’re most excited about, and give yourself permission for that first draft to be awful. Let yourself play and fall in love with writing, until the idea of not writing is far more awful than writing something bad could ever be.

IT DIDN’T WANT ME TO CARRY ON

This is another version of impostor syndrome that (for now!) I’ve largely banished but which I used to find really tough to shut down. This time, the little voice was saying, ‘Writing? Now? Aren’t there loads more important things you should be doing? Writing is a waste of time.’

I struggled, for a long time, to take my writing seriously. I grabbed moments to do it around doing other things, rather than prioritising it because putting writing ahead of other things felt so… selfish? Self-indulgent? Like a waste?

I honestly had no preconceptions that my writing was going to lead anywhere, particularly for the first couple of years, so the idea of prioritising it felt silly. It was something I was doing just for me, something that was probably too bad to ever try to send it out into the world, so making time for it felt wildly self-centred.

But then I went on a writing retreat run by the lovely Stephanie Butland at The Garsdale Writing Retreat. I highly recommend writing retreats generally, but this one specifically is FANTASTIC. Glorious food, wonderful environment, and Stephanie is such a knowledgeable and compassionate teacher.

I met people who were willing to shell out a load of money (I was very lucky to get a creative grant) to spend a week focusing on their writing. They took it seriously, and it was the first time that I really believed I could do the same.

I came home and blocked out times in my diary for writing. I wrote for an hour most days before work, because I wanted to give it my best. I stole days from my calendar and dedicated them to falling into the stories in my head.

The idea that there are much more important things we should be doing is a hard one to quiet down. I find myself slipping into old patterns – carving off chunks of my writing time when other things crop up that I feel are more worthy uses of my time. When I notice this, I try not to beat myself up but just reshuffle my priorities again. I love writing, so it’s something I want to give time to.

If you’re struggling to prioritise your writing, I’d suggest making small changes. Make sure that the space you write in is good for you – what could you do to remove distractions? Make sure the time you’ve picked is best for you – do you have the energy and head space to write? And don’t beat yourself up if, for the moment, prioritising writing just isn’t possible. We all go through those times. It doesn’t mean that the mean voice is right, it just means that sometimes life is a bit loud and the things we really want to do have to take a back seat. They won’t always have to, and some time you’ll be able to carve out some time for writing again.

IT DOESN’T WANT ME TO FINISH

You may have noticed that I’ve been able to quiet elements of my impostor syndrome during the writing process, but that there is one thread that runs through it all – ‘Are you sure your writing is good enough?’

I could write a first draft despite this, because first drafts are allowed to be rubbish. I could keep going, because no one was going to see my writing so I could just have fun with it.

But finishing… well, when you finish a book, what do you do with it? It can sit in a drawer and still be just for you (totally valid!), but there is something in me that wants to see my book out in the world. I want my books to be read.

That means people will read my awful writing though. Gah.

I’m honestly a bit terrified at the moment. I’ve got an agent (read more about that here) and we are working on edits to get my story ready for submission, and I am totally bricking it. My impostor syndrome is being SO LOUD – I’m talking megaphones, trumpets, flashing lights. It’s doing anything it can to get my attention.

I believe, at its core, impostor syndrome is really, really trying to do a good thing. It has stupid arse ways of going about it but deep down, all this little voice is trying to do is protect us. Because putting words out into the world is freaking scary.

I can be as logical as I like, I can tell myself my book isn’t for everyone and avoid Goodreads like the plague, but I know that at some point some tool will tag me in a negative review on social media and it will break me a little bit. I know some people will take exception to creative choices I’ve made and attack me personally for it. I know that people will have so many hecking OPINIONS and sometimes they will express those opinions LOUDLY.

I want my stories to be read. It will be a joy like no other to see my book on shelves and in reader’s hands, even better if it connects with their hearts, but there is always a downside to putting any part of yourself out into the world. And impostor syndrome is trying its best to protect me from that.

But sometimes we have to be brave. I really want something, and I know that sometimes having that thing will be tough. Impostor syndrome is always going to have something it’s trying to protect us from, but we have to ask whether being protected is worth it. Would you rather hide away in total safety with your stories, or would you rather throw them out into the world and, just maybe, become someone’s favourite author?

I know I want my stories to fly. I want to write for a living, and the only way that’s going to happen is if I take impostor syndrome by the hand and tell it that I don’t need to hide away. I want my stories out in the world, with all the good and the bad that will bring.

And that’s what you need to ask yourself, if you’re struggling to take that step towards putting your story in front of other people – is it better to hide away and be safe, or do you want more? Take small steps – ask a kind friend to read sections or connect with an editor. Let yourself ease out of your comfort zone.

I don’t think my impostor syndrome will ever go away. It’s been programmed into us since we were cave people that seeking safety is of paramount importance. Our brains sometimes get confused and identify threats now as things that need to be totally avoided, but I’m not going to get eaten by a tiger if I put my stories out into the world. It might be tough sometimes, but the scariness that impostor syndrome wants me to believe is there, simply isn’t anymore.

We can be brave. We can take a deep breath, and step out. Just think of all the wonderful stories the world will gain if we do.

I hope this has been helpful! I love helping other writers make their stories shine. If you’d like me to take a look at your story, check out my editing options. And I’d love to keep you up-to-date with all my editing tips, writing adventures, and editing availability with my monthly newsletter.

July reads

I am currently a STONKING ten books ahead of schedule for my challenge of reading 100 books this year. Madness! This has been helped by downloading a month’s trial of Kindle Unlimited where I’ve read loads of fun stories. I shall be asking for a e-reader for Christmas but in the meantime, I’ve read some absolute beauties…

First Time for Everything by Henry Fry has one of the BEST opening chapters I have read in a very long time. I was making so many involuntary noises (of both pain and mirth) that I had to explain to my husband that I was reading about a DETAILED visit to a sexual health clinic. This book has so many laugh out loud moments and a flawed main character that it’s impossible not to fall in love with. Read if you want a dose of queer joy!

The Extraordinaries by TJ Klune has cemented this author as one of my firm favourites. This is the first in a series that I am currently DEVOURING. It’s YA at its finest – silly and heartfelt with a whole heaping of fast-paced plot. There is cool super powers and clueless teenagers and brilliant ADHD rep. I reckon fans of Rainbow Rowell would like this one.

The Half Life of Valery K is the latest offering from Natasha Pulley, and I am yet to read one of her novels and not fall head over heels in love with every one of her characters. This book is very science-y, which is not normally my bag but it’s accessible and fun. If you want a gloriously written story about forbidden love, Russian secrets, and octopuses, then this is the one for you.

And although I didn’t read it this month, I want to give a little shout out to Devil’s Mark by Lark Taylor. I had such fun editing this spicy story earlier in the year, and it’s wonderful to see how it’s been embraced by readers since it’s publication on the 20th of this month.

As always, read them all and we can be chums 😊

I’ve started a bookstagram! Join me for even more shouting about books – you can find it here.

June reads

Apparently I was a reading swot during June. I read a whopping 13 books – which I think is my record since I started these reading blogs! It was difficult to whittle it down, but here are my faves…

I was giddy to be invited to the launch party for Twice Hexed by Julia Tuffs, and fans of Hexed will not be disappointed by this latest instalment. More period magic, more island fun, more mystical misunderstandings. This young adult fantasy is perfect for readers of Kate Western and Lucy Cuthew.

It was almost impossible to put down The Castaways by Lucy Clarke. I genuinely sat back after reading this book and said ‘heck’ to myself several times. If you liked LOST but hated the ending, this has all the plane crash vibes you need with a conclusion that won’t have you grinding your teeth. There’s also sisterly love and really sensitive infertility representation, and it will honestly grip you until the last page.

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune blew me away. I would have liked it to be double the length so that I could spend more time with the beautiful characters. This book is simply gorgeous. The magical world is so creative and unique, and you’ll fall a little bit in love with every person/magical being you encounter. I really can’t recommend this one enough, and it’s a must-read for fans of Fredrick Backman and Becky Chambers.

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell kicks off what is most likely my favourite trilogy of all time. This was my fourth or fifth re-read of this book, and the only moment of discontent I experienced was when it ended. There’s magic, love (both romance and friendships), a broken chosen one, and when you’ve finished it there are TWO more stories to dive into. There’s also fire and sour cherry scones and boarding school fun and dragons and pining and kissing and PLEASE READ IT. I love it so much!

The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley was another re-read. This is a book that it’s hard to fully appreciate without returning to it. The writing is not only beautiful but the plot and world are so precisely crafted. Even though I knew how it would end, I was no less glued to the page during this second reading. Read this if you enjoy nautical tales, time-travel shenanigans, and heart-breaking characters.

As always, read them all and we can be chums 😊

I’ve started a bookstagram! Join me for even more shouting about books – you can find it here.

May reads

May had it all – adventures in space, scheming fairies, and love stories galore! Here are my faves…

Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell cemented my view that I really do love things set way in the future and in a galaxy far, far away. This setting gives authors the freedom to change facets of society that are outdated and unkind – I particularly love how gender is handled in this book. There’s forced marriage, mysterious murders, and getting lost in the snow – plus some weird alien creatures! If you rated The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers and Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir, then you’ll love this.

The Problem with Fae by Emma Bradley is the second in the Arcanium series, and it doesn’t disappoint! More magic, more pesky fairies, and more adventures. This is a great YA story for teens who don’t want loads of angst or overly romantic plot lines – it’s all about friendship, fun, and stopping the bad guys. I can’t wait for the next one!

Gay Club! by Simon James Green is one that not only his stanch fans will love, but I’m sure it will draw in loads of new readers because WHO CAN RESIST THAT COVER?! Following a group of teens as they grapple with the joys and difficulties of being LGBTQ+ in todays schools and world, this book will have you both laughing and tearing up in equal measure.

Book Lovers by Emily Henry is a new firm fave. I always know I’m going to enjoy her books, and this one blew me away. I love stories that feature bookish characters, and this one is FULL of them. Plus you get some beautiful writing, steamy spice, and cute small town vibes. If you are a rom-com fan, then you need to get your hands on this.

As always, read them all and we can be chums!

Querying

How I signed with an agent

For more context about where I was at before I started querying, take a gander at this blog post. But for those who only have time to read one lot of my ramblings today, a summary:

I queried two books before I signed with an agent with my third. Sadly, this partnership didn’t work out for a number of reasons, and we parted ways. I found this process really difficult and there are loads of ways I’ve carried it with me into querying again, some of them good and some of them bad.

The biggest thing was that I didn’t expect to be here again. I’d had an agent, so I thought my days of querying were done. The crushing blow of losing that agent, although I did ultimately feel like parting ways was the right decision, was that it sent me right back to square one again.

BEFORE QUERYING

I took some time before I dove back in. The YA book I was working on with that agent was probably query ready, but I’d utterly fallen out of love with it. I wanted to do something new, and more and more my mind was turning towards the weird little crime stories I’d written whenever I needed a brain break.

I grabbed the one that was calling to me the most and totally rewrote it. I changed the main character, beefed up subplots, added in better setting descriptions. I literally rewrote it word for word because I knew that so much needed to change. I think I also needed this time. I needed to fall back in love with my writing again, to prove to myself that I could write something compelling and deep, that I could enjoy some part of this process and find life in it.

Once the re-write was done, I asked a whole load of people to read it – nine of them! This may not sound like a lot to some of you, but it’s the biggest pool of beta readers I’ve ever used. Some of them gave detailed line-by-line notes, some gave overall comments, one commented on the police procedures, and some (my mum) were cheerleaders. I needed all of them. Like I needed the time of rewriting to heal, I needed the affirmation from beta readers to show me that I could write a story worth reading.

By September 2021 (five months after splitting with my previous agent), I was ready to query again. I put together my query letter (read more about that here) and synopsis, plus made sure that my first three chapters were as hecking exciting as they possibly could be. And then it was time to dive in.

That first month, I sent out just four queries. I was being very particular, but I also knew that if I threw my work out to loads of agents and then got loads of rejections, I wouldn’t cope very well. I chose carefully, made sure I referenced their wish lists and researched their client lists, and then tried my hardest not to think about it.

I have to say that at this point I had literally no idea the toll that querying would take on me. I had done it before, so I thought I knew the deal. I’d be careful not to check my emails too much (I failed) and I’d manage my expectations (ha). What I hadn’t taken into account was how much my previous experience with an agent was hanging over me the whole time. It robbed me of confidence and basically made every little bit of the process all that much harder.

So if you’re in a similar boat, I’d advice taking all the time you need before you start querying again. I know how gutting it is to part ways with an agent and I know the terrible fear that you’re never going to find someone to represent you again, which can galvanise you into action too soon – but please take care of yourself. I wasn’t very good at this, and it made querying an even less enjoyable experience than it is anyway.

THE FIRST REJECTIONS AND THE FIRST FULL REQUEST

The rejections came first, and they didn’t pack quite as much of a punch as I’d expected them to. I think I was vaguely realistic about this part of the process – even if my novel was shit-hot (and I would go so far as to say it was quite good), then it wasn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. I really loved writing about a traumatised detective and interspersing the action with loads of emails and report and transcripts, but that wasn’t going to be what every agent I queried was looking for.

So I was alright with being rejected. Maybe there was even a little bit of my brain that believed they were right to reject me – one agent already had in such a monumental way, so it was no surprise that others would to. What I was less prepared for was my reaction to a full request.

Now, I really don’t want anyone to think I wasn’t insanely grateful. Part of me was jumping for joy – this was the validation I needed to throw more queries out there and maybe this was the first step in finding an agent. Yay!

But there was another part of my brain that totally freaked out. I cried when I got that first request, and they weren’t tears of joy. There was some panic thrown in there too. Some fear.

Now I’m not exactly sure what was going on in my little brain, but I think that the part that wanted to protect me from further pain would have actually preferred it if all I got were form rejections. With full requests came greater hope, and with greater hope came more potential for pain.

I don’t know if anyone else feels like this, but I wanted to talk about it. I feel like all we are meant to feel when we get a full request is unmatched joy, but this wasn’t my experience this time around. Every full request I got freaked me the heck out. I didn’t cry every time, but I certainly wasn’t very happy.

I know that sounds strange, since the literal point of querying is to get full requests. But I do wonder if I’m not the only one who feels this way. Maybe I’m not the only one who felt a whole range of emotions when they got full requests. This is such a tough business and we’re putting so much more than words into agent’s hands when we send them our stories. That’s a really hard thing to do, and the more encouragement we receive then the harder the fall if it doesn’t work out.

(I’m not meaning to bum anyone out here. I hope talking about this is helpful!)

MORE REJECTIONS AND MORE FULL REQUESTS

Over the next few months, I sent out a steady stream of queries, and got a mixed bag of form rejections and full requests. I also started to get rejections on the fulls I’d already sent out, which were uniformly kind and encouraging. I got into a groove with querying – I made sure to send out at least 5 but up to 10 submissions each month, and I tried my hardest to think about the pending full requests as little as possible.

But between all this zen-like denial of what was going on, one rejection broke through and cut deep. I have no idea why this one hurt me so badly. I’d very carefully not allowed myself to get attached to any particular agent that I queried, so it wasn’t like I had high hopes for them. It was for a full, which was always a bit more painful, but it wasn’t the first rejection for a full I’d had. It was the fourth, so I thought I’d gotten used to the blow. It was kind and helpful, and the agent gave the most feedback that I’d gotten for a rejection so far.

I honestly don’t know why this one hit me so hard, but had a proper cry when I read the email. I felt, for the first time, that maybe I really was right and this story wasn’t going to go anywhere. At least, not in a traditional publishing sense.

I took two things from this rejection. The first – sometimes we think we have querying figured out and then the toughness of it slams into us. Querying is ridiculously hard! I think we forget this sometimes, because it’s the process most writers have to go through and forgetting is often a helpful tool so that we don’t get too down. But we’re throwing little bits of our hearts out into the world with no idea what reaction we will get. The odds are monumentally stacked against us.

I guess what I’m trying to say is – I think it’s completely reasonable to find querying an emotional rollercoaster. Sometimes you’ll feel like you’re pootling along happily and then there is a sudden dip or high, and you’re not in control of these things. It’s okay if sometimes rejections just make you shrug or if they make you question everything you’re doing.

The second thing I took from this rejection was that there isn’t only one way to get a book into reader’s hands. I have some lovely writing friends who have self-published their stories. I have always been fairly set on wanting to go down a traditional publishing route, but I think my previous experience with an agent and the toughness of entering the querying trenches again had me rethinking that. I realised that there are a hell of a lot of benefits to self-publishing – greater autonomy and control, ability to set your own timelines, pocketing a greater percentage of profit per book, to name just a few. I read a book, just to dip my toe in the water, and found it really helpful – The Writers’ and Artists’ guide to Self-Publishing. I highly recommend it to anyone considering this route.

This new idea there was a way to get my book into reader’s hands even if my querying didn’t work out the way I hoped took a lot of the sting out of subsequent rejections that flowed in. I was no longer solely dependant on a gatekeeper – I could become my own gatekeeper! I would get my book out into the world no matter what.

I’m pleased that things have worked out the way they have, but I am so glad that I looked into self-publishing and took back that control for myself. It made my final months of querying so much more peaceful, which was helpful because…

THINGS STARTED TO GET INTERESTING

At the start of February (five-ish months into querying), Kate Nash Literary Agency did a little flurry of tweets about what each of their agents were looking for. I had a look through them, plus a nose around their website, and felt like my story was what one of their agency assistants, Saskia Leach, might be looking for.

I sent off my query to her on the 9th February. I wasn’t very confident about it, as the agency asked for the letter to be laid out in a different way with slightly different information included to what I was used to. (A quick aside – ALWAYS FOLLOW THE AGENCY GUIDELINES!)

Saskia requested the full on the 14th February. I sent it off, and then did the usual of trying to forget about it as much as possible. I’d had fulls out since October/November that I still hadn’t heard back from (I nudged the agents every month or so and they had assured me they were still interested but just really busy), so I didn’t expect to hear back from her any time soon.

Something that I found really kind and considerate, is that Saskia checked in a month later to let me know that she was reading and enjoying my submission, and to let me know that she’d be in touch soon. These small things that show agents are aware of the tole querying takes on writers, how horrible it can be to have fulls out for a long time and hear nothing, are a sign that you’re in contact with a good egg. I still tried really hard not to get my hopes up, despite the good vibes I was getting, since how many times have we felt a connection with an agent and it’s ended in pain?

But on the 28th March, Saskia emailed to request a chat. She said she loved my story and would be interested in finding out more about me, my vision for the series, and where I saw my writing career going. I was absolutely bricking it before this chat, but Saskia put me at ease right away. She explained how the Kate Nash Literary Agency worked, the kinds of authors they represented, and how they worked with their authors. She gave me some suggested edits that she’d want me to make before we went on submission – and they were all great. They all showed that she had connected with this story and had a clear vision of how to make it stronger.

We chatted for over an hour, during which Saskia made sure that I asked any questions I needed to. I was buzzing when we said goodbye, and later that afternoon Saskia sent me an offer of representation.

DECISION TIME

My gut instinct was that I wanted to be represented by Saskia and the Kate Nash Literary Agency, but I really didn’t want to rush into a decision. I also had four fulls out with other agents at that point, and I felt like it was only fair to give them a final chance to read my story. I set a deadline of the 15th April – giving them two weeks to make a decision.

I emailed them all to say I had an offer of representation and tell them about the deadline, plus everyone else I had a query out with. Over the two weeks, two other agencies also asked for the full.

I spent those two weeks in a state of nervous anticipation. I knew I had an offer from an agent who I really liked, so some of the pressure was taken off, but I also knew there was a chance that another agent would also offer, and then I’d have a really hard decision to make.

You may not believe me, but I was honestly so pleased when I got to the end of those two weeks and Saskia’s was the only offer on the table. I would have hated trying to make a decision between two agents, and I had such a good feeling about her.

I accepted the offer of representation on the 14th April, and signed with the agency on the 20th April. Since then, Saskia has only confirmed how lovely she is while guiding me through my induction into the agency and introducing me to the other authors they represent. We’ve had another chat to nail down all the changes needed before we go on submission, and I feel so excited about them. They’re only going to give depth and flair to my story.

And that’s it! If there’s one thing I’d want anyone to take from my experience, it would be – be kind to yourself. Let yourself feel sad when the rejections roll in, let yourself feel mixed emotions when good things happen, don’t over query and exhaust yourself, and, whenever possible, stay away from your emails!

STATS

For those who are both nosy AND geeky beans (like me)

Total number of queries sent – 50
First query sent – 8th September 2021
Last query sent – 21st March 2022
Requests via pitch contests – 2 (both of which resulted in a form rejections)
Introductions via writer-type people – 7 (which resulted in 2 full requests (who then rejected), 4 form rejections, and one no reply)
Cold queries – 41
Full requests – 14 (13 of these rejected and 6 of them gave feedback)
Form rejections – 20
Rejections on the submission with personalised feedback – 2
No replies – 14 (one of which was a full request)
Longest reply – 5 and a half months (full requested in November, didn’t hear until April)
Shortest reply – 1 day (full requested and then rejected (with no feedback) the next day)
Offers of representation – one 😊

I hope this has been helpful! I love helping other writers make their stories shine. If you’d like me to take a look at your story, check out my editing options. And I’d love to keep you up-to-date with all my editing tips, writing adventures, and editing availability with my monthly newsletter.

Specifics in Query Letters

I love helping editing clients make their query letters shine and a thing I find myself saying repeatedly is that there are more specifics needed. To help make sure that your query sticks in agent’s minds, the letter needs to be snappy and original. The only way to do this is by being as specific as possible about your story, characters, the comparison titles, and you as the writer. Vagueness is easily forgotten, but interesting specifics will stick in agent’s minds.

Disclaimer for my editing clients – I only ever share advice that I find myself giving again and again. I am NOT talking about you and will never reference your stories. In fact, I’m probably going to talk about ME quite a lot!

So let’s break it down. I’m going to go through a query letter in the order that I wrote one and which I feel works well to introduce agents to your story in a fun and helpful way. Starting with…

1. THE ELEVATOR PITCH

This is one or two lines designed to encapsulate the essence of your story. This doesn’t mean they have to tell the whole story, but just give a flavour and hook agents in. Here’s mine:

Note – it doesn’t tell you very much BUT there are some interesting specifics in there to snag interest. We know the victim, that the case is a difficult one, and that the suspects are not going to make it any easier.

Now, this isn’t perfect. I could have rammed even more specifics in there, but hopefully you get the gist. Make sure that this short intro to your story could only ever be describing YOUR story – and pull out as many interesting details as you can. Avoid vagueness at all costs.

2. INTRO TO CHARACTERS AND PLOT SUMMARY

This makes up the bulk of your letter. It doesn’t have to tell the agents everything (that’s what a synopsis is for) but acts more like a blurb – something to capture interest and give a better sense of what the story is about. Here’s mine:

I feel like I should say here that I honestly don’t think that my query letter is perfect, but I hope that sharing it is helpful! I’m such a nosy bean – I love seeing what everyone else has sent to agents!

Anyway, this plot summary is full of more specifics. They are the ones I felt were the most important to know, to both give a sense of the story and the characters, and they would give agents something to think about. Note – I didn’t include everything. There are two suspects that aren’t even mentioned, plus the detective’s histories are only hinted at. There is a fine line to tread between being specific enough that your story stands out, but not getting overly bogged down in the details.

I like to think of this part of the letter as the walk between the elevator to the front door. Your elevator pitch interested them enough that they want to hear more, but you’ve got a limited amount of time before they’ll walk out the door.

Keep it snappy – tell them only what they really need to know and only what is really interesting. Think about what is unique and attention-grabby about your story and make sure that’s included. Make sure the characters, their aims, and the stakes/threats are clear. And again, avoid vagueness at all costs. If your character needs to save the world, then how are they going to do that and what do they most care about saving? If they are looking for romance, what’s different about their search and why to they need a special someone?

Ask yourself why a lot, and try to be as specific as possible in your answers. Make sure that this section is exciting and enticing – leave all the other details for the synopsis. Look at the backs of books and practice writing about your story in the same style.

3. THE BORING BITS

These are the things that agents need to know, and I’d suggest putting them further down in your letter simply because they can get excited about the story first and then read the info they need. Here’s mine:

This is all the junk that agents need to know – how the story is told (if it’s a bit different to the norm), the word count and genre. And, MOST IMPORTANTLY, your comparison titles. Comparison titles are something I’ve harked on about before. They are a great opportunity to show off both that you’re reading in your genre and that you understand where your book sits in the market.

AND they are another chance to get specific. It’s not that helpful to say, ‘my story is cross between The Hunger Games and Pride and Prejudice.’ (SOMEONE WRITE THIS!) What elements of these is it similar too? What bits do you want to evoke in agent’s minds?

If you’re using comparison titles (which can be anything – books, magazines, films, TV series, songs, famous people…), make sure to say more than just the name. Maybe it’s the brutality of The Hunger Games set alongside the miscommunication and family dynamics of Pride and Prejudice?

Note that I haven’t talked about themes at all. This is another area where vagueness is RIFE. What story isn’t about friendship or courage or love? Show these elements in your plot summary with specific details, rather than putting something in your letter that could apply to a hundred other stories

4. THE PERSONALISED BIT

I always feel like it’s a good idea to spend some time researching agents and personalising your letter. This doesn’t have to be much – just referring to something on their wish list or in a recent tweet is great. Here’s mine:

Note – this is also a great place to say specifically why you have written this story. Do you share any characteristics with your main character? Do you have a specific experience that informs your writing? Did something interesting happen that sparked this idea?

5. ME ME ME

The main thing, initially, that you need to sell is the story so make sure that your letter is focused on that, but it’s good to throw in a few specifics about yourself. In the end, agents are signing you as a writer, so they will want to get a sense of your personality. Here’s mine:

There is loads of stuff I left out here – I didn’t chat about my degree or how long I’ve been writing or any awards or my love of cake. Instead, I just picked a few things I felt were relevant and interesting – and mentioning a pet is always a win. Reading is such a big part of my life that I couldn’t resist mentioning it here, and that’s the thing to ask yourself – what defines you and informs your writing? Are you a keen traveller, blogger, baker, or crafter? What makes you tick?

Two final notes:

1. Do be careful not to waffle. Specifics are great, bogging down agents in too many details isn’t. A query letter should be no more than a page long – mine was 487 words (which is probably a little on the long side).

2. This isn’t actually the letter I sent to my lovely agent. Kate Nash Literary Agency asked for things to be done differently, so that’s what I did. So make sure to retain the specifics, but ALWAYS follow agency guidelines.

I hope this has been helpful! If you’d like me to take a gander at your query package or your whole story, check out my editing options. And I’d love to keep you up-to-date with all my editing tips, writing adventures, and editing availability with my monthly newsletter.

April reads

April has been a lush reading month, and not just because I have FOUR favourites to chat about. I’ve been taking full advantage of the slightly warmer weather with some quality outdoor reading time. Is there anything better than reading in the sunshine while birds holler around you? But onto my faves…

I hesitate to call a book my FAVOURITE EVER but if I was going to bestow that title, it would be to Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I love this book so much! It’s the original rom-com – full of romance, jolliness, and a bucketful of misunderstandings. If you’ve not dipped your toe into much classical reading, I’d recommend giving this one a try. It’s easy to read and pacey, and the silly side characters will put a smile on your face.

Must Do Better by Kate Weston had me giggling and crying in equal measure. This is the second in a YA series, so go back and read Diary of a Confused Feminist if you haven’t already. Kate’s writing is fun and heartfelt, toeing the line perfectly between teenage foolishness and confronting the sometimes harsh realities of living with mental illness. AND these books are a masterclass in voice – check them out if this is something you’re trying to beef up in your own writing!

Mad About You is Mhairi McFalane’s latest offering, and it’s just as gripping as her other novels. The main character is dealing (or ignoring) past traumas, until they come back to bite her. This story explores the poisonous nature of the online pile-on alongside a romance that will have you glued to the page. I’m always a fan of a robust love interest, and this one fits the bill.

The Last Firefox by Lee Newbury is a beautiful story, not least because of the wonderful illustrations by Laura Catalán. This middle grade adventure pulls together magical fun and the message that every family is precious and valid. I loved the animal sidekick, who will have kids aw-ing and laughing in equal measure.

I also want to give a little shout-out for The Cosy Cottage in Ireland by Julie Caplin. This is pure escapism – mouth-watering food description and a dreamy retreat in rural Ireland with a hunky man were just what I needed! I’ll be checking out the other titles in the series.

As always, read them all and we can be chums 😊

March reads

March was a splendid reading month – a mix between fun rom-coms, magical adventures, and even a bit of non-fiction! These were my highlights…

A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske is my first five star read of the year. It is PHENOMENAL. Beautifully written and wonderfully crafted, I had to force myself to slow down so that I didn’t race through it too quickly and then make myself sad because I had to leave the characters behind. It’s got so much that I love – hidden magical societies, found family, hidden romance, and WHO CAN RESIST THAT HECKING COVER?! Perfect for fans of Natasha Pulley and Becky Chambers, but also everyone should read it so that I can STOP SHOUTING.

I was incredibly fortunate to be sent an advance copy of The Extraordinary Adventures of Alice Tonks by Emily Kenny, and it’s one that any lovers of middle grade adventures should add to their TRB right now. Reading this was doubly special, as I worked with Emily on an early version of this story before she even had an agent. It was lovely to see how the novel has changed and grown. If you love talking animals, autistic main characters, and boarding school fun then this is the one for you.

I cannot recommend the Writers’ and Artists’ Guide to Self-Publishing highly enough to anyone thinking of going down this route. It runs through the essentials – editing, design, production, sales, and marketing – all in an inspirational and practical way. If you want to publish your words well, then make sure you get a copy of this!

Beach Read by Emily Kenny is one of my favourite rom-coms this year – and I’ve read a few! One of my biggest peeves is when the love interest is just a vaguely male shaped thing who the main character can bump/rub/hump up against, but this is not the case here! I honestly don’t think the title or cover does justice to this story – it’s deep and heartfelt, delving into the pain of loss and the difficulties of starting something new when people have lots of baggage. This is great for any fans of Olivia Dade or Ali Hazelwood.

As always, read them all and we can be chums 😊

February reads

I delved deep into romances during February, and came away with ONE clear favourite…

The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood is such good fun. The main character is a female scientist – intelligent, passionate, and career focussed – and the romance element is so well spun out. I have read a few too many rom-coms that feel a little lacking in both tension and believability, but this isn’t one of them. I could have hung out with these characters for much longer, and I can’t wait for Ali’s next book to come out!

And I want to give a quick shout out to The Spanish Love Deception by Elena Armas. It’s exactly what it says on the tin – utter jolly nonsense. The perfect escape if things in the real world are getting a little too heavy for you at the moment. Plus, this is a self-publishing success story. Elena published independently at first, but when her book soared into book charts and became a Goodreads book of the year, she was picked up by a publisher and is now reaching even more readers than ever.

As always, read them all and we can be chums 😊

Disappointing Climaxes

in novels…

I’ve seen a few disappointing climaxes in client’s stories recently (cue childish giggling), so thought I would share some ideas to make sure your story climaxes are as satisfying as possible (cue more giggling).

A little disclaimer: previous clients – please don’t worry that I’m talking about you. I will NEVER reference specific stories and I only share topics that I find myself returning to on several occasions.

The climax of any story is the moment that writers and readers alike are working towards from the first page. It’s the culmination of whatever was kicked off with your inciting incident being wrapped up in some way. It could be an epic battle, a gentle kiss, a jump from the back of a train, a step towards self-acceptance and change… there is no one thing that constitutes the perfect climax to a story, but I think we all know when one hasn’t quite hit the mark.

We walk away from a story feeling distinctly MEH. So much was promised, and we were let down. Sadly, I’ve read a few published novels recently that have left me feeling this way.

The perfect climax for a story is hard to get right, but it’s so worth the effort of rewriting and editing. It’s the difference between becoming an author that readers will return to, or one that they will pass by next time. A good climax makes the story. Please don’t get too mad at me if you totally love Lost, but how many people now loathe that series because the ending was so appallingly bad? But how many people love Schitt’s Creek because that ending was everything we needed it to be?

There are a few things I’ve noted cropping up repeatedly in my client’s work that mean their climaxes fall flat. This is not an exhaustive list, but it could help you to round out your story’s climax if it’s not quite there at the moment

  1. THE CLIMAX IS RUSHED

Simple, but so easily done. You’ve battled through writing most of a book, all those pesky threads are coming together, you’re so close to ending this beast – so you don’t give the climax the time and space it deserves. It would be kinda like if at the end of The Lord of the Rings after you had all this epic set up and Sam literally carrying Frodo up the volcano thing, it ended with a line like:

‘And Frodo threw the ring into the lava and he and Sam walked home.’

No. Nooooo. Firstly, we need that final battle with Gollum, the final battle within Frodo himself. We need to see all the gore and pain and heartbreak of those final moments. We need to linger with this final, pivotal scene because we’ve been building towards it for so long.

Now, your book may not be the final in a series of fantasy epics, but the principle applies. Linger with your climax. Think of all the threads that have led there and make sure they are all tying together. Think about your characters – what do they need to achieve as they cross this final hurdle? What have you been making readers want for the past 200 pages and are you going to give it to them?

2. THERE AREN’T ENOUGH THREATS

Apparently I’ve decided to hinge this thread on The Lord of the Rings. Oh well.

Imagine if Frodo had a mission to get rid of the ring because it turned people invisible and that seemed a bit weird. He went for a camping trip with some friends and they encountered some barriers but eventually got to the big old mountain and threw it in. The end.

What a boring arse story. Without the threat of THE ENTIRE WORLD THEY KNEW BEING DESTORYED there is no real point to the quest to destroy the ring. Even apart from this big threat – there are lots of little personal threats throughout. Threats make the stakes high, and stakes need to be high for readers to feel invested in the climax of a story.

Again, you might not have THE FATE OF THE ENTIRE WORLD at stake in your story, but there has to be something significant that your character stands to lose if they don’t achieve the thing the story has been working towards. If they’ve got nothing to lose, then why should your readers care about what the character is doing? Another reason readers will struggle to care about the climax is if…

3. YOUR MAIN CHARACTER’S AIM IS UNCLEAR/THEY LACK AGENCY

Handily, I did a whole blog post all about agency last year. You can read that here.

Agency is your character needing or wanting something and then taking steps towards achieving it. Sometimes, it’s hard to spot when your novel lacks agency because stuff is happening – but is this stuff caused by your main character or happening to them?

Ideally, you’ll have a good mix of things that happen to them and things they make happen, but the climax needs to be hinged on the aim or goal or wish your character has been fighting towards working itself out in some way.

Imagine if Frodo got to the bad mountain and he said he couldn’t climb it so Sam plucked the ring out of his hand and threw it in the lava for him. That would have been soooo unsatisfying. It had to be Frodo that threw the ring in. It was his aim, it was his goal to achieve.

4. TOO MUCH INFORMATION HAS BEEN WITHHELD

I think we’ve all read those novels, and crime is a genre that is particularly guilty of this, when you get really close to the end of the novel and you’re suddenly blindsided with all this information that was withheld throughout.

It’s really annoying! You’ve spent the whole novel with your brain engaged, following the clues, tracking suspects, and then it turns out it was their long lost aunt WHO YOU WERE NEVER TOLD ABOUT who stole the manatee.

Characters developing skills that have been in no way hinted at during the novel, relatives popping up who have never been mentioned, new creatures suddenly charging in to save the day – they might make for a dramatic finish, but probably one that will leave readers unsatisfied.

Leave hints at anything important that’s going to happen in the climax throughout the novel. The ending is not the place to introduce a whole load of new info, but rather a place to piece together what you’ve already got. This is similar to another type of disappointing climax:

5. A TWIST THAT CANNOT BE TRACKED

Frodo gets to the top of the mountain, he goes to throw in the ring, and suddenly Sam turns on him. He pushes Frodo into the lava and takes the ring for himself, becomes the new dark lord or whatever, and becomes best mates with an orc.

Um, no. No, thank you. Sam has been set up throughout the novels as the most pure and loyal individual who has ever lived. His every action is to the benefit of Frodo, apart from a few mistakes that he heartily regrets. There would be no way, if he suddenly turned on Frodo at the end, to track that twist back.

Readers should be able to read books with twists at their climax and spot all the little warning signs along the way. That’s what makes the best twists brilliant – we didn’t see them coming but we should have, and then we can go back and spot all the hints and feel very clever. An unprecedented twist will leave readers feeling alienated – they haven’t been included on the fun

6. THERE ISN’T ENOUGH CONNECTION WITH THE CHARACTER

Now, there is a lot of discussion about how difficult it is to make a character who is relatable for everyone, since we all have such different backgrounds, but connection isn’t really about relatability. It’s not even really about likability.

I don’t know what it’s like to be a short dude with hairy feet. I don’t know what it’s like to go on a horrible camping trip with a load of other people and fight off the urges to wear a weird ring. I don’t know what it’s like to climb a mountain, fight orcs, or even have a second breakfast.

I do know what desperation and fear feels like. I have friends I would do anything for. I have things I care about and fight for. I feel jealousy, fight impulses, and can empathise with looking at a task and feeling there is just too much to be done for one person alone

Your character doesn’t have to be exactly like the reader or even someone they would want to be friends with, but there does have to be something about what they’re experiencing that will draw the reader in. There are universal things that make us human – love, hope, joy, pain, fear, sadness – and depending on the genre and age group you’re writing for, your novel will tap into one or more of these. Write about them authentically, and readers will care about your characters and the culmination of their journeys.

And that’s it! All my thoughts about disappointing climaxes. I’ve had to be very sensible for almost this blog post, so I think I may go lie down now.

I love working with other writers – making sure their climaxes and all other elements of their stories shine. Take a gander at my editing services and get in touch if you’d like kind and thorough feedback on your words.

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