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Sustain

Thoughts about writing during this strange time

I keep going through periods of wildly fluctuating productivity with my writing. Or maybe that’s not strictly true. My output might stay the same, but a chapter can take me half an hour to edit or a whole morning. And writing feels easy, the ideas flow, or it feels like I’m carving my way through the sentences with a blunt knife.

Gosh, that sounds dramatic. But I want to be honest. Sometimes writing is shit. Sometimes it is hard and tiring and leaves me feeling like crap.

At the moment, this dragging feeling is more prevalent than it is normally. I don’t know about you, but when lockdown was announced for the first time, my creativity took a major hit. For about a month, I wrote no new words, I struggled to edit, I barely read.

And then things got a bit better. We could see friends again and sit inside to eat cake together. Gradually, my writing mojo came back. Or, it kinda did. It would come to me to unpredictable spurts. One week, I would race through editing ten chapters, and then the next just getting through one chapter a day felt like an unachievable aim.

And I didn’t know how to feel about this. Everything was getting better, right? But it wasn’t, not really. Loads of people were still getting sick, too many people were dying, some suffered with long COVID or worsening health conditions because they couldn’t go to hospital for treatments. All our jobs were sent into flux, some lost, some discounted, some massively changed. I think we all felt lonely. And these weren’t just things happening during the first wave or first lockdown, they are things that continue to happen and, if we are being honest, they will continue to happen for some time to come.

I am going to keep finding work hard, with all the changing rules and customers who don’t seem to understand how to keep two metres distance from me. I am going to keep reading heart-wrenching statistics about all the terrible ways this pandemic is affecting people. I am going to keep stressing out about going into the shop, passing people on narrow paths, whether I have enough pasta and hand gel.

I’m not trying to be pessimistic or pile on to what is already a rubbish situation, but what I am trying to say is this: why on earth would we expect ourselves to function well in these conditions? Why would we expect to hit huge word counts and come up with great ideas and articulate ourselves well? There’s too much going on, and it will keep going on for a while. And I know, for me, something has to give. I can’t keep applying the same pressure I used to in terms of how much writing and creating I expected from myself.

So, I’m trying something new. I’m giving myself permission to sustain.

I’m not going to stop. I had to for a little while, to give my brain time to process all the horribleness going on, but I don’t want to do that again. (By the way, it’s 100% okay if you’re still in that stopping place. We all process things in our own way, and it cannot be rushed.) Instead of pushing myself all the time, which was driving me a bit mad even before the world fell to pieces, I’m slowing it down.

I’m going to keep going, but not at a sprint anymore. Not even at a long-distance run. Writing has become a trek across unhospitable terrain. I’m working is shorter chunks, I’m pausing a lot, my ideas are generating slowly. But I’m coming to realise that this is what making writing sustainable at the moment is all about. I can enjoy the times when, briefly, I find a meadow to skip across but most of the time I’m rock-climbing, so I can’t expect to cover the same distance in the same amount of time.

I will sustain. This has become my battle cry. I will not be broken down. My words will rise. They will just do it a lot slower, they might be a bit rougher, but they will come.

Well done if you are battling your way through NaNoWriMo this year. You’re taking on something I can’t even contemplate doing right now. Equally, please don’t beat yourself if you’ve already fallen behind. Writing a novel in a month is always a hard undertaking, but never more so than this year.

We need to give ourselves permission to have these shit times. We need to go easy on ourselves, to not expect too much from our battered brains. And I say WE because sustaining is the attitude I want to have towards my writing, but I too easily fall back into guilt and berating myself. Every time I find writing hard at the moment, I try to take a breath, to remind myself that it’s okay for it to be hard, that it’s alright to take a bit more time than expected.

I’m going to sustain my writing during this mad period. I’m going to set smaller targets, I’m going to rest regularly, and I’m going to (try to) be kinder to myself.

I hope this resonates with you. I hope you cut yourself some slack and breathe. I hope you sustain yourself and your writing until things become a bit easier, for everyone, again.

If you’d like regular updates about writerly things, my editing slots, and courses, email thebrittonbookgeek@gmail.com to recieve my monthly newsletter 🙂

October reads

What a strange month October was! And what a weird one November will be… If you need some reading inspiration, I read some great books last month 😊

My first fave is Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. For lovers of Elizabeth Strout and Becky Chambers, this is a must read. The story grips you right from the first scene and doesn’t let go. I love how deeply each character is explored, and the lines between sympathy and revulsion are blurred again and again.

And my second fave is Melt My Heart by Bethany Rutter. Hard-hitting young adult fiction that tackles fat-shaming, anxiety, and coming out, with a mouth-watering backdrop of an ice-cream shack. I am still having cravings.

Read them all and we can be friends, yeah?

Start

Why I began writing – the origin story

I always wanted to be a writer.

Books were my refuge when I was small. Authors like Jacqueline Wilson, Roald Dahl, and Jill Murphy were my heroes. My writing tastes diversified as I grew, diving into Malorie Blackman, Louise Rennison, and Jane Austen. I read widely and unstoppably. And I wanted to be the one to create worlds for other people to escape into.

When I was about twelve, I bought an old typewriter at a car-boot sale. It got stuck every time I tried to use the Q and every letter had to be punched out, but I began writing a story about fairies. One fairy had lovely long hair that all the other fairies were super jealous of. I was enjoying myself, while maddening my family with my metallic thumping of words onto the page, but then I made a mistake.

Typing out a story word-for-word a second time wasn’t quite as fun, especially when I made another mistake halfway through. I don’t think I’d even spent an afternoon using the typewriter before I was in tears. It was packed away on top of my wardrobe. I’d thought writing was going to be a fun experience. It was until I hit that little stumbling block. I do wonder sometimes how many more books I would have written by now if I hadn’t been daunted by that first mistake.

I tried writing MANY more times. I’d live in the stories in my head and sometimes the urge to write them down became too overwhelming and I’d grab my laptop and try. I very rarely got past the first page. I’d sit back after an hour to read my efforts and became overwhelmed by how awful it all was. It was only a faint echo of the glory in my head and that wasn’t good enough. I didn’t keep any of my writing. I was so disgusted that it didn’t match up with what I’d imagined that I destroyed all evidence of every attempt.

This was a frustrating time. I knew what I wanted to do but had no idea how to do it. I went to university and studied English Literature, so I learnt about how loads of other people wrote. If anything, I was more intimidated than before. There were creative writing classes available but I didn’t take any of them. I was too scared of writing something and then letting other people read it.

I became resigned. Writing was something I wanted to do but I assumed it was something I’d figure out one day in the future. I got a job at a library and surrounded myself with other people’s stories. I tried not to dwell too much on that fact that I’d never be an author if I carried on like this.

Then my father-in-law died suddenly. He was 56 years old. He went into hospital in the morning and had passed away by the afternoon. John was a wonderful man, and the days and weeks after he died were horrendous.

His death taught me something. Quite childishly, I’d assumed that writing was something I would do when I was older and that I’d have as much time as I wanted to do it. John’s death reminded me that you cannot count on having years in the bank to do that thing you want to do some day. If you want to do something, you’ve got to do it now.

It took several months, but I wanted to try writing again. I felt much clearer about what I’d done wrong the other times I tried to write a book. I ditched the computer and bought some notebooks from Paperchase. I knew I would never throw one of them away (sacrilege!) and they were small enough that I didn’t need to look at anything I’d written, at least not right away. I could turn the page and pretend to myself that everything I’d written was perfect. That’s the illusion I needed to create to be able to write.

I was still a bit stuck. I’d wanted to write for years so I had too many ideas bumping into each other inside my head. I couldn’t decide which one was the BEST, which one was the RIGHT one to work on.

I was reading a lot online at this point about writing, scouring author websites for any advice that would get me started, when I stumbled across Joanne Harris’s website. Two sentences stuck out in her advice for prospective writers:

“Write what you want to write. Don’t write what you think you ought to write (or what other people think you should write).”

Those two little sentences broke something down inside of me. There was no BEST idea, there was no RIGHT idea, there was only the one I WANTED to write.

So I started. 17th January 2014, I wrote the first words of a story that would take me exactly six months to write. This was the story of my heart and, although it is shelved now, it taught me that I can write a book if I want to, I can edit a crappy first draft into something passable, and I can endure a lot of rejection and still come through wanting to chase my dream of being a published author.

If you are a bit like me, you so want to write but are struggling to start, here are some tips:

  1. Identify what isn’t working for you – I had to write that first novel in notebooks because I couldn’t bear to look back at what I had written. You might not have the same problem. Maybe pen and paper is too slow for you. Maybe you need to write in a different room, with music or in silence, in prose or poetry. Try something different and stick with what works.
  2. Let yourself write what you want to – free yourself from an idealised view of the book you want to see on shelves and just write what’s fun. There will come points when writing is a bit more of a slog, but writing down an idea you love should be a very freeing experience. Write what you want and you’ll find yourself falling in love with it over and over again.
  3. Don’t read back – this is my general advice for all first drafts but especially the very first one. I took immense comfort in the knowledge that no writer pens a perfect first draft, but it doesn’t make writing my crappy ones any less painful. If you can, just keep writing through to the end. Then leave it alone for a while. When you come back to it, the reading honestly won’t be so painful.
  4. Try, try, try, and keep trying – that’s all I do. That’s all any writer is ever doing. There is not a point in time when you KNOW how to write. It’s all a muddle. We’re all finding our way. Those who end up in libraries and on bookshelves are those who caught the writing bug and didn’t stop trying.

You could start today. Grab a pretty notebook, sit back in a comfy chair, and write whatever is in your heart.

September Reads

Another good reading month! Before I chat about my favourites, I have to give a shout out to Jenny Colgan. Her novels have been an absolute godsend during this weird time. When I feel my anxiety levels creeping up, I grab one of her books from the library and lose myself in jolly tales of baking and stormy weather 😊

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman was glorious. I love all of his writing – full of heart and humanity. This is closer to A Man Called Ove in tone than Beartown, but if you’ve not read anything by him yet then give this a go!

Blood Moon by Lucy Cuthew completely blew me away. Perfect for lovers of YA verse novels, this story about friendships, sex, and internet shaming was impossible to put down. I finished it at least a week ago, and I am still thinking about the intense reality conquered by this beautiful writer. I can’t wait to see what she writes next.

Now, I am not one for negative reviews, but I do want to add a trigger warning to one of the books I read this month. The Midnight Library by Matt Haig is whimsical and kind, but it is based around a woman who decides to commit suicide. This is mentioned throughout the book so if this is something you struggle with, please read in a way that is safe for you.

Read them all and we can be chums, yeah?

August Reads

August was a cracking month for reading. I am woefully behind on my challenge to read 120 books this year, which I’m still not quite ready to admit defeat on… BUT I’m loving reading again and I have three great favourites to tell you about.

In A Dream You Saw A Way to Survive by Clementine von Radics is glorious. Even for people who don’t like poetry (and let’s be honest, they just haven’t read the right poem yet) this will draw you in. At times, it feels almost too honest, brutal in the way the words reach into your soul and squish around in there. Ow. I’ve written a much more comprehensive review over on the Eye Flash website.

Random Sh*t Flying Through The Air by Jackson Ford sees the return of reluctant superhuman Teagan and chums. It could totally be read as a standalone and debuts probably one of the most horrifying villains ever. You will find yourself thinking ‘kill the kid’, which is both uncomfortable and entirely justified. This series is great for people who want a fresh take on the whole people-with-powers thing – it’s funny, irreverent, and filled with great food references.

And finally Grown Ups by Marian Keyes. I’ve not read anything by Marian before, but thought I’d give this one a go after being thoroughly endeared to her on Elizabeth Day’s How To Fail Podcast. She made an excellent point about female novelists being portrayed as emotional when they write about families, whereas men will be heralded as writing an insightful epic. Having read Grown Ups, I couldn’t agree more. This story delves into several interconnected lives with such compassion and clarity that it is an eternal shame that it will always be relegated in some minds because it was written by a woman. Why not give it a try and let yourself be impressed?

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

Habit

How do we make writing a habit?

A lot of you will have experienced that wave of creativity when you first start writing. Suddenly, something clicks and you’re away. It may last for only an hour, or a few days. Mine lasted for the whole of the first draft of my first book. I was just so happy to finally be doing something I’d been telling myself to get on with for so long. Every moment was a joy. I wrote before and after work, during my lunch break, in stolen minutes at the weekend. I couldn’t get enough.

But then the crash comes. You still love writing, but some of that initial flush of inspiration has worn off. You have to think about when writing will fit into your busy life and, when you do finally find the time, you just aren’t as productive as you were before. Something has changed but thankfully this happens to all of us.

If you want writing to continue to be part of your life, then you need to make it into a habit. That’s not something born of a moment of luck but of conscious choice.

I ran into a huge brick wall when I started editing my first novel. It was sooo much harder than writing the first draft. I found myself spending less and less time writing because I wasn’t riding on a high anymore, but if I wanted this book to improve then I needed to prioritise working on it.

I think there are three things we need to do to make writing a fruitful habit in our lives.

  1. SHOW UP

Somehow, around all the other things filling our days, we’ve got to find some time to write.

I would suggest starting small, just 10 minutes or 100 words. Stop thinking of the novel you’ve got to write or edit, and break it down into easily achievable steps. Then put when you’re going to complete those steps into your diary (and don’t book anything else in!)

Sometimes, life is unavoidable. I think we’ve all learnt recently that we are very much not as in control of our circumstances as we would like to think we are. People will get sick, kids will need dinner, bosses will demand more, so it is okay to have blips. The thing about having writing as a habit is that as soon as humanly possible (and sometimes this will take a while so try to be kind to yourself) you get back to it.

Monitor your showing up in some way, either by word-counting, clock-watching, simply ticking it off on your to-do list. Watch those days you commit to writing as a habit rack up, and your craft will thrive.

2. SHUT DOWN

There is always something that is going to stop you writing. These things can be split into two categories – distractions and circumstances. Distractions are temporary and mainly within your power to push away, while circumstances are a bit trickier to overcome (and some cannot be).

Distractions come in many shapes and forms. It might the be the woman talking loudly next to you at a café, the brownie you can’t wait to eat, or the bit of research you really MUST do before you start writing. There is also the always present phone, just waiting to steal away our precious writing minutes with wormholes filled with puppies and cute gifs.

These are in your control to minimise. Put your ear buds in, go get the flipping brownie and EAT IT, make a note of the research and do some writing. Throw your phone across the room. Or, at least put it out of arm’s reach. For half an hour, shut down all the little things dragging your attention away from your writing and get the words down.

And remember, shutting down distractions is an ongoing thing. You might have a great month of putting your phone away while you write, and that’s just when you’ll start getting sucked into Twitter more. Don’t beat yourself up, just shut it down again and get back to your writing.

Circumstances are harder and, in some cases, impossible to shut down. It might be your offspring, an unwell partner, your own health, global pandemics, your living situation, a demanding time at work, or so many other things. These are things you may not have the power to shut down so that you can spend blissful hours each day writing.

We all have these things going on, you may have a combination of these things. Some are joyful, like a great job or your children, but some are really tough, like caring for someone else or dealing with daily pain. There is still a choice, despite our circumstances, to choose to write, but it MUST be balanced alongside kindness to ourselves. Why set goals we can’t meet because of our circumstances at the moment? Instead, I suggest setting small goals and celebrating like heck when you complete them, but being compassionate with yourself when you don’t.

The other thing to shut down is the negative voice inside your head. It’s not a lie that we are our own worst critic. I struggled when first trying to make writing a habit because I felt like a fraud. I was completely happy with my assessment that my writing was rubbish, so it made no sense that I would carve chunks out of my life to work on it. We have to learn to hush that ultra-critical voice so that we can value our writing and protect the time set aside to do it (I know this can be really tough and sometimes my critical inner-voice is VERY LOUD – this is another time when setting small goals is great because you only have to make a tiny stand against the negativity, rather than fighting a battle)

3. SET OFF

No one begins a journey without a destination in mind. That’s a very good way to get lost and end up going no-where at all. The same is true with writing. If you don’t have a destination in mind, you might spend endless hours working on things that don’t amount to much. You don’t need to know everything, but what is it that you want to achieve? What are your dreams?

Once you know this, you can make plans and take small steps towards achieving them.

I want to explore more about making writing a habit – do you too? I am planning a course all about this, starting in January. Email thebrittonbookgeek@gmail.com to register your interest!

Failure

How you feel about failure will affect your writing

Nobody likes failure. No one is pleased when something they’d dreamt about doesn’t go how they’d planned. We don’t like it on a small scale (that poem that just will not come together in the way we want), and we especially don’t like it on larger scale.

My first big writing failure came when I didn’t sign with an agent for the first book I queried. I’m not ashamed to call this a failure, and I think one of the worst things we can do with failure is not name it. It’s a kind of hiding away, not acknowledging that actually you put a lot of time and effort and love into something that just didn’t work out. So first of all, let’s name it.

I failed when I didn’t get an agent for my first book. I failed when I stopped querying agents after just 30 rejections on my second book. I failed, most recently, when I had to cancel a series of one-off courses. And I know I will fail in the future. Publishers will reject my book. I will have other events I’ll have to postpone due to health reasons. I will probably hit some kind of creative stumbling block, be that a lack of new ideas or a lack of faith in the ideas I do have. And then there are all the little failures along the way. A character who didn’t hit the mark emotionally, an idea that no-one gets behind, a morning when no matter how hard you try, the words just will not come.

This is why it’s so important to name failure, to face up to it, because in writing it is going to keep happening again and again. If you shy away from it so much that you can’t even name it, eventually you’re going to stop doing the things that make you fail. And writing will cause failure.

Writing is all about stepping out and opening yourself up to rejection. Even if you only write for yourself, you’ve still got to put pen to paper and sometimes things aren’t going to hit the paper quite how you’d imagined. Kent Nerburn says in his glorious book Dancing with the Gods, ‘any creative act involves great emotional risk.’

We have to acknowledge that writing is scary and that we will fail many times, otherwise we will stagnate. I know so many people who get stuck on tinkering with their opening chapter or they cannot bear to go back and edit their first drafts. I think it is because they are afraid. They have put so much into their writing, even if they have just done a little, and the fear of failure keeps them from taking another step. They know, deep down, that failure is inevitable in writing and they cannot cope with that.

I’ve said already, no one likes failure. I was not a happy bunny when I made the decision to stop querying my first novel (you can read a bit more about that here). It felt like a very significant failure. It was also quite a public failure as I had become more active on Twitter while querying, and so people would know I hadn’t achieved what I’d set out to. It was rubbish. I loved my book, and time and time again it had been pushed back. I didn’t feel good enough. I cried a lot.

But there was hope despite this epic fail. I needed time to wallow yet even in that time of sorrow (you may think I’m being dramatic but chat to anyone who has had to shelve one of their book-babies – they know the pain!), there was still some fight in me.

I talk on the rejection course about how important it is to have big dreams. I honestly think this is one of the most important things writers can do. We need to acknowledge failure, and sometimes it feels like it is coming at us daily, but if we have massive dreams there is always something we can be hoping and planning for.

I took time out after querying my first book but, even as I made the decision to stop, I knew I was going to query another book. And then another, and another. I would keep querying as long as it took to get an agent because my big dream is to be a published author. This dream is much bigger than one failed attempt (made up of over a hundred attempts!) at getting an agent. It is bigger than my bad writing days, than my lack of faith in myself, than the comments from beta readers that show I missed the mark.

Big dreams make failure okay because they don’t depend on doing well at one thing and one thing only. Big dreams take several steps. Big dreams mean that sometimes we’re going to have to jump and hope we land on dry land rather than in a bog. But big dreams make the bogs bearable. They reframe the rejections and bad reviews and zero-word days into temporary set-backs.

If you haven’t already, I urge you to spend some time thinking about what your big dreams are. Go mad. Dreams don’t have to be realistic. Some of mine are; to publish books for both young adults and adults, to have a book optioned as a TV series, to one day be contacted by a reader who saw themself in one of my characters.

These dreams are much bigger than my worst days. They are much brighter than my darkest moments. They keep me going when every word I put down is awful and every reaction I get is negative.

Big dreams don’t mean failure will not happen. It will happen a lot. I’m just not afraid of failing because I know that if I don’t step out and risk losing, there is also no chance I’m going to win and get everything I’ve dreamed of.

I hope you will keep failing your way towards your dreams too.

To keep up to date with all my failures (and news) sign up for my monthly newsletter – just email thebrittonbookgeek@gmail.com 🙂

July Reads

I feel very much back into the swing of reading again. I didn’t realise I was missing it so much until I read two books in a day (one was very short!) and felt totally blissed out 😊

July was a strong month for books – it was hard to pick favourites! Just a quick shout out for Wranglestone (perfect if you like people quietly loving one another while the world falls apart around them) and The Little Paris Bookshop (it has a BOOK BARGE).

The Boy Who Steals Houses is absolutely beautiful. Lyrical and emotional, it follows the misadventures of Sammy Lou, a young man who desperately wants to protect his autistic brother from the dangers of the world, even if that means ruining his own life. It gripped me from the first page and I cannot recommend it highly enough (it’s Own Voices as well, which is a bonus!)

A Closed and Common Orbit is the second in the Wayfarer series. It can be read as a standalone, and if you haven’t read anything by Becky Chambers yet then I am very jealous of you! Go grab one of her stories and fall in love with her out-of-this-world (literally) characters.

And who hasn’t encountered The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse in some way? Charlie Mackesy’s illustrations are beautiful and although this may be a quick read, it is one you will find yourself returning to again and again. I’ve given one to my Nan and my mother-in-law, and I’ll keep gifting it to anyone and everyone I can 😊

Read them all and then we can be friends, yeah?

Comparison

Don’t let comparison titles steal your joy

There is a lot of talk about using comparison titles in query letters to agents and it can feel like a minefield. How do you find the right things to compare your book to and why go to all that effort?

The main reason – they are a great way to show off!

  1. Comparison titles show off your up-to-date knowledge of your genre – by referencing new(ish) releases in the area you’re writing in, you effectively display that you are keyed in to what is going on in the book world (or at least the part of it you want to break into)
  2. Comparison titles show off your understanding of the market – because you’ve clearly shown that you know where you fit into it. So when you agent/publisher wants to talk to you about changing markets and sales, you’ll have some idea of what they’re talking about because you already vaguely know where your book fits
  3. Comparison titles show off your love of reading – and this is an important one. It shouldn’t shock you that agents and publishers are bookish people. They will want to talk about books with you. By using good comparison titles, you’re showing that you support other authors, are a keen reader, and actually enjoy the kind of book you’re writing (it’s weird how many people write a crime novel having never picked one up…)

Now you’re convinced that it’s a good idea to put in a bit of time to find the right comparison titles (and you totally are, right?), here is how to do it:

  1. The key to finding good comparison titles is reflecting the feel – You may have written an epic space saga that spans 400 years and includes not only romance but several crimes and a cute puppy. Even if you haven’t written something like this, you may be finding it hard to place your book directly alongside others. But the truth is that your book will have to sit alongside others and to sell well it will need to be compared in some way to something that came before it. Concentrating on the feel of your story rather than the content is a good way to find comparison titles that really clearly point to the kind of story you’re telling. One example of this is the novels of Elizabeth Strout and Becky Chambers. Plot-wise, they are as far from one another as can be. Strout writes about family drama in small town America, while Chambers details epic space journeys hundreds of years from now. However, I would argue that they have a similar feel. They are both gentle reads, and their books delve deeply into character and relationships. Superficially, they are not the same but they share the same heart
  2. It doesn’t have to just be books – so long as you’re reflecting the feel, you can compare your book to whatever you like. Films, TV shows, albums, magazines, podcasts, etc. This can be another great way of showing off – not only do you read well in your genre but you are finding a wider reach for your book as well
  3. Just find one or two – this makes your job so much easier! All you need to find is one thing that reflects a key element of your story – be that the plot, themes, characters – anything! If you can find two, it’s great to combine them in some way, e.g. My YA fantasy novel combines the kind of light-hearted love story found in High School Musical with the gritty realism of a harsh dystopia like the Hunger Games. (Someone please write this!)
  4. Try not to go too old or two big – which would defeat a lot of the points I made about showing off. If you go too old, then how would anyone reading your query letter know that you’re up-to-date with current treads and love supporting others? And if you compare your book to someone everyone has read, then it doesn’t really show you know where your books fit in because those books are too fluky to really try to replicate. This is also a way to make sure that your query stands out – lots of people will compare themselves to big names but if you pick something really carefully, it just might be interesting enough to catch an agent’s attention

One last thing to say – comparison titles are 100% not essential. They are helpful but an agent isn’t going to reject your query just because you don’t have them. If you’re really struggling, then leave them out of your query letter. This is better than referencing anything that doesn’t feel right.

However, if you are struggling it might be worth reading some new releases in the genre and age group you’re writing in. This can only be a positive thing as it will give you a sense of where your area is at, but hopefully you will also find something that reflects some element of your book.

In this very small area of your life, I would suggest that comparison can bring you joy. Please please PLEASE remember this though – do not compare your stories to others in any other way. Don’t fall into the trap of comparing your timeline, output, agent, publisher, sales, film optioning, advances… ANYTHING to anyone else. Your journey is unique and so is the way you write and create stories, so try to stay away from the poison that is comparison (in any other form than comparison titles!)

You do you, and let everyone else find their own way.

You can read more tips on writing a great query letter here, and if you need some personalised feedback, check out my editing options!

Partner

What is a critique partner?

A critique partner is someone who gives detailed feedback on your writing. Unlike beta readers, these are people you swap stories with. There is a bigger element of give-and-take in this relationship, and it is one I have found incredibly valuable.

To give more of an insight into what a critique partner is and what they do, I had a little chat with my very lovely CP Emma Bradley.

How did you find each other?

Emma: I was inconsolable at not getting picked for the WriteMentor 2019 summer mentor program, but Anna posted in their Facebook group that she was looking for a critique partner. I messaged back to say ‘yes please’ and she’s been stuck with me ever since!

Anna: Ha! I was feeling the same. I was gutted that I didn’t get picked, mainly because I really wanted another pair of eyes on my work. Posting in the group was a bit of a brave thing for me, but Emma responded almost immediately and was super nice.

What boundaries did you have in place before you started swapping?

Emma: I would no doubt have ploughed in with swapping whole manuscripts, but Anna suggested a chapter a week or thereabouts which proved to be a great pace for us to work at. We were both quite clear about wanting someone who could be thoughtful with feedback rather than cutting or blunt, but still able to pinpoint all the niggly (and absolutely glaring in my case) issues.

Anna: I have a tendency to take on more than I can actually manage and then stress myself out, so I was really clear about only wanting to swap one chapter a week, despite wanting to do more! This has worked really well. We didn’t set any firm boundaries in terms of the kind of feedback we would provide, but after the first chapter it was apparent we worked in similar ways – both thorough and enthusiastic!

How did you know you wanted to keep working together?

Emma: We just never stopped! Once we’d finished swapping one MS we would take a break and move onto another, or in my case abandon one of mine most of the way through and get excitable about the next one. It’s not just the feedback either – having a friend who understands the writing highs and lows is invaluable.

Anna: I had a few people respond to the request I put in the group, but it was clear to me as soon as Emma and I swapped critiques that I would want to keep working with her. She returned her feedback quickly, and spotted really helpful things.

I always make it clear when I’m starting off with a new CP that I think we should just swap one or two chapters to begin with to see if we are a good fit. This gives both of us a chance to see if we work well together and there are no hard feelings if one of you doesn’t feel quite right about it.

How often and what do you swap now that you have been critique partners for a while?

Emma: We’re quite flexible now, although I tend to forget to send things and end up flapping when she tells me off! Whether it’s something we’ve been working on or just a quick idea, the ability to get someone else’s thoughts on it before you sink the next however many months is a big help. Anna’s moved more into thriller/psychological of late, while I’ve marched firmly down the middle-grade route, but it’s brilliant to have a completely different brain involved!

Anna: I only tell Emma off because I want to read more of her stories! They are really engaging and working with them so closely means I get really invested in the characters and want to know what they are up to next. Like Emma said, at the moment we are writing quite different books but her input is still so valuable. I also send Emma any blog posts I’m working on so that she can make sure they make sense! She’s become my writing-sounding-board.

Do you gain anything from critiquing someone else’s work?

Emma: I definitely get a lot from critiquing. Aside from the joy of reading unknown stories and thinking I could one day be seeing them in bookshops (and going ‘omg, I know that person’), everyone has a different approach. Your way of describing anger for example could be completely different to someone else’s, and you get great writing/wording insight by seeing the many perspectives. You also start to recognise mistakes in their story and suddenly they’re glaringly visible in your own! 

Anna: I gain MANY things. Firstly, I get to read stories before anyone else, which really makes me happy. I will be so giddy when I see Emma’s books in shops! It also helps me develop a critical eye for my own work. Often, a mistake I spot in Emma’s work is one that I’ll then find in my own. Working on her stories has made my own storytelling stronger.

What are the best bits of having a critique partner?

Emma: It has to be the writer camaraderie. I’m repeating myself, but it’s so important to have someone who understands. They know how crushing a rejection is and can cheer you on when you finally remember where the comma is meant to go! Anna’s recently started her rejection course and it’s been so lovely getting to see her teaching the ins and outs of querying and coping with all the bumps of it. 100% recommend getting yourself a critique partner (but hands off mine!)

Anna: Ha 😊 The same – it is so lovely so share more closely in this writing journey with someone. I love watching Emma’s style develop and change, and reading her many stories is so much fun. It’s reassuring to know that someone will give me really honest feedback – since we have been doing this for a while now we can we a bit more honest with one another!

If you can, find yourself a critique partner. You might strike out with a few people, but that’s okay. Not everyone is going to be a perfect fit. When you find the right person, it is worth it – it will only ever make your writing stronger and hopefully you’ll find a new cheerleader!