I feel like I am slowly getting my reading mojo back. There was a point, early on in the pandemic, when my concentration was completely shot. I think it was also my ability to relax. My brain was too jumpy and settling to read a book was too much. Thankfully, this seems to be abating. If the same was true for you, I hope you are experiencing the same gradual calming.
Three favourites this month. Before I get onto them, the astute among you will have noticed that I went on a bit of a Jenny Colgan reading spree in June. These books are wonderful. Full of kindness and warmth, they are exactly what I needed to help me fall back in love with reading again.
But onto the favourites. Toffee by Sarah Crossan is a must-read for any fans of verse novels. Some poems seemed to almost literally punch me in the gut with their barely controlled emotions. The Sun and her Flowers by Rupi Kaur was a reread, but one I enjoyed no less than the first time I read it. Split into sections following a break up, healing, and finding someone new (and better) these poems crack open what it means to be a woman, daughter, lover, and so much more. Such beautiful illustrations as well.
I read cookbooks from cover to cover. I own all of Rukmini Iyer’s Roasting Tin books because they are all brilliant. The Roasting Tin Around the World does not disappoint. I’ve tried three recipes from it so far and they were all delicious, and many more are going to be gracing my plate very soon. If you’re not a confident cook or if you don’t have much time to spend in the kitchen, these are the cookbooks for you.
As always, read them all and then we can be buddies, okay?
I have just finished writing the first draft of a story. I feel like doing a jig. For anyone who has ever completed a first draft – you know what I’m talking about. For those of you who haven’t YET – it is well worth all the hours put in. This moment is sweet.
There is editing to be done. A LOT of editing. I’m an unashamed pantser so I have no idea, particularly at the start, where my story is going. That means a lot of filling in later on. Maybe at some point I’ll talk about my editing process, but for now I want to focus on how I write a first draft (and I’m going to talk about the book I’ve just finished, because it’s fresh in my head!)
Writing a first draft is something that fascinates me. When other writers talk about their processes, I am THERE. Front row, notepad out. I’m not really interested in changing my approach, writing a first draft is one of my favourite parts of writing, but I love hearing how stories are made.
Because it is magic. Someone has an idea, they write some words on a page, and then that makes something happen in other people’s brains. They can share adventures and fall in love with characters that came from someone else’s mind. Wow.
IN THE BEGINNING
All my ideas start with a person, and they are all already doing something. This time it was a woman called Lina and she was walking home after a party. Pretty basic stuff, until I realised she was limping, it was raining, and she was scared.
Lina came from seemingly nowhere. I think most people have some experience of walking in the dark and feeling scared. I can honestly say that Lina did not come straight from one experience because she popped into my head during a James Acaster stand-up performance, which is probably one of the furthest experiences from walking, scared and in pain that I could get.
But there she was. She was alone and she was afraid. And she didn’t know if she was being followed.
I wrote the first chapter that night after we got home from the comedy show in a flurry. I had so many feelings I wanted to get down. This is often how it is for me with a first draft. The main character walks into my head and they are thrust into some situation and I just really want to follow along with them.
Very quickly, as I was writing, I realised that I wanted there to be a big question mark over whether Lina was being followed or not. In the moment, she felt sure she was. She ducked into a shop but could not see anyone on the CCTV. Only a woman walked past in the opposite direction, drenched because all she was wearing was a green dress.
Fast forward a couple of days and Lina has convinced herself she was imagining things; no one was following her. She walks to her friend’s house and sees a man putting up fliers. His girlfriend (green dress woman) was kidnapped, on the same night and on one of the same streets that Lina fled down.
Lina has to decide whether she goes to the police and tells them she thinks she was being followed that night. She isn’t sure if her information will be helpful, but she thinks that the only consequence if it isn’t is that she will make a fool of herself. As the story continues and Lina tries to act in ways she feels is right, the consequences escalate until being in the wrong place at the wrong time that night might not only cost her friendships, her home, and her job, but also her life.
All that spiralled out of a woman walking home in the rain.
IN THE MIDDLE
This is when I actually figure out what’s going on in my story. A character and situation springs itself at me and gradually I work out how their story will end. Then I have to figure out how to get there. I will be the first to admit that to begin with, I didn’t know if Lina was being followed that night. This story could have gone so many different ways. I find out where I (and the main character) want to take it through the writing of it.
I am a pantser (which to me means generally figuring things out as I go along) but I do make some notes. Some are about characters, so that I can keep them straight in my head. I am terrible with remembering names and that extends to the made-up people in my brain. I make notes about important bits of action that need to happen SOMEWHERE, and little hints I’ve made that I knew I need to resolve SOMEWHERE. As a general rule, I have no idea where.
The middle of the story is the part I find the hardest to write. I still really enjoy it but, unlike at the start and the end, I have to be more disciplined with myself to make sure that I actually sit down and do it. It is the part that is the least clear to me, so I have to think a bit more about it rather than just typing in a mad frenzy.
IN THE END
Although I do enjoy writing endings, and have probably been looking forward to writing the last scene almost since I jotted down the first, this is when it becomes glaringly apparent that there is going to be A LOT of editing to bring everything together. My first drafts are full of massive plot holes.
To be honest, I try not to think about it. I write first drafts to please myself. Since no one else is going to read them, who cares if a character pops into existence halfway through and needs to be written into the first half later, who cares if there is a big hint I forgot to drop, who cares if someone’s name or job or family situation suddenly changes? I don’t. At this point in my writing, that’s future Anna’s problem.
I write a lot of notes while I end my book, because I do feel some sympathy for future me. Then I finish the story. I do a dance. I let it rest, for at least a month, before I start editing. I am a big fan of letting things rest. A month is the bare minimum for me. The longer I can leave it, the better. It means that when I come back to it, I am much further removed. I have a terrible memory, so some things will actually come as a shock to me, and I can approach it more like a reader.
As a way to monitor my progress, I decided to keep a tally of my wordcount during this story. For those among you who find graphs pleasing (and who wouldn’t?!) – I hope the following makes you smile.
Some of my reflections:
Excluding days when I did no writing at all – it took me 60 days to complete this story. I had a lot of breaks though, so from start to finish it was 210 days. I can usually finish a first draft a bit quicker than this, closer to around three months, but my writing mojo was thrown off by a global pandemic so I’ll cut myself some slack
The most words I managed in a day was 2696 (not in one go!) and the least was 92. My average words per writing day (including all the days when I didn’t write would skew the results DRAMATICALLY) was 1141. This feels like an achievable number, and makes me think that I could finish my next book in a much shorter amount of time!
This way of recording progress kept me accountable. Instead of thinking I’m sure I did some writing last week I could see exactly when I last wrote and that made me get a wiggle on when I was leaving it too long between writing sessions (apart from during April when I wrote nothing because my brain had turned to mush)
I found recording my word count rewarding. One key thing I didn’t do, which seems to make a big difference to me, is that I didn’t keep track of what the overall word count was. For some reason, I beat myself up with that and feel quite intimidated by it. But daily ones were fine, and recording them meant at the end I could make GRAPHS
There are many different ways to write a query letter. The one thing to ALWAYS remember is to follow agency guidelines. If they tell you to shuffle everything around, then do it! But most agencies aren’t very specific about the actual structure of the query letter you send to them, and that is when a template like this will come in handy.
However you choose to write your letter, this template will give you a good idea of the weighting of each section. Ideally, your letter will fit onto a page of A4, and at least half of that will be taken up with talking about your story. That is what agents are (at least initially) the most interested in. They are looking for stories to fall in love with.
Keep it short and snappy – this is one or two sentences that give a flavour and peak interest
Make your hook specific – your story might be about fairy tales but what makes it different?
This is not a summary – you don’t have to introduce many characters or delve far into the story
Be wary of asking too many questions – just one is enough
This is the biggest section of your letter – one or two paragraphs detailing a bit more about your story, setting and characters
Leave the agent wanting more – you don’t need to include all the details but tell enough to give them a clear picture
Be specific about stakes – agents will want to know what unique consequences there will be if everything goes wrong
Ask why – justify your character’s actions. Simply saying that Fred is going to find a pink pearl isn’t very compelling, but saying Fred is going to find the pink pearl BECAUSE it will save his wife is much better
Find examples (and copy them!) – dig out your favourite books and see how their blurbs are set out. These are written to entice readers and are exactly the kind of thing you’ll want to replicate
Things agents need to know – your word count, genre, age group, themes, etc. You could also mention anything you like about the agency/agent here, plus if your story has series potential
Lay it out simply – this section doesn’t need to take up too much room. One mistake people (ME) have made is making too much of a priority of this stuff and not enough of making their story sound like the most exciting thing ever
Include comparison titles (if you can) – I could chat for quite some time about comparison titles (I may well do this at some point – watch out for it!) BUT the main things to remember are:
Reflect the feel of your book
They can be books, films, albums, artwork… get creative!
Don’t go too old or too big (so try not to compare your book to Wind in the Willows or The Hunger Games)
Keep the information relevant – your relationship with your agent will be personal, but the thing they are primarily interested in is your story writing ability. In your letter, it’s more important to detail your writing-related achievements than detail your many other hobbies (although throwing one in is a great way to inject a little bit of personality!)
Always mention pets – who doesn’t love them?!
Mention competitions you’ve won/short listed – but stick to ones about this story and make sure they are well known. In my first query letter, which will remain confined forever to the deepest bowels of my laptop, I mentioned winning a competition at my local book fayre. I can only imagine how underwhelmed agents were by this. Unless your local book fayre is the Winchester Writer’s Festival or such-like, it’s probably not worth a mention (although you should ALWAYS give yourself a pat on the back for any competition won)
Don’t be shy – agents are being very open at the moment about craving own voices stories so mention if you are BAME, have a disability, are LGBTQ+, or are from any other group currently underrepresented in publishing. However, only share these things if you are comfortable doing so. Own voices is incredible, but no one has a right to personal information about you.
And that’s it!
Query letters can be tough, but once you’ve got a template you’re happy with it is so much easier. Play around, draft and redraft, until you have something that makes your story shine.
I wrote my query letter to this template – you can see all these sections in action (and read some more general tips about query letters) here.
I also offer a query package editing service, which you can read more about here.
Top tips on writing a query letter from someone who made many mistakes
I am not going to share my first query letter with you. Nope. No way. That thing was a hot mess. I will, however, share my final query letter with you. I still maintain that it’s a little messy, but thankfully not steaming.
In my first letter I put the boring technical stuff at the start so that agents had to wade through all that to get to my actual story. I was obsessed with a competition I’d won and included SEVERAL quotes from the judges. I spelt one of my comparison title author’s names wrong.
I worked on it, and then I worked on it some more. I read blogs about writing query letters, searched online for any examples I could get my hands on, and eventually created something that sold my book well and worked for me. Because those are the two most important things. You need to be the biggest salesperson for your book ever, but you need to feel comfortable doing it.
Some advice about query letters from a person who has made fool of themselves in front of a lot of agents:
Follow agency guidelines. Always. This may sometimes feel tedious (or even soul-destroying!) but it is sooooo important. Skip this, and you run a very real risk of your submission not being read. What matters is that the essence is the same – that you’re able to talk about a story you’ve lovingly crafted and tell them a bit about yourself. So, if they tell you to lay out your letter completely differently to how you’d planned, DO IT!
Keep it professional, yet inject personality. This is a hard balance to achieve, but basically – you’re addressing a stranger in a nice way.
Address them properly. Get their name right. Spell the agency correctly. This is such an easy win but an almost instant turn-off if you get it wrong. Having been on the receiving end of submissions as part of my work as a generally helpful person at Eye Flash, I know just how annoying it is when people get my name wrong. Even worse is the dreaded, ‘Dear Sirs.’ Just no.
Do not send to all. No matter how tempting it might be. It is obvious, and it will result in instant rejections. Have a template you work from (I talk more about this in my second post about letters) but put in the time to personalise it to each agent. And remember, almost all agencies only want you to send to one agent at once, so pick your favourite!
Keep it short. Your query letter should fit easily onto one A4 page. Make sure that all the information included is relevant and necessary.
Spend most of the time talking about your story. Make sure at least half of your letter, if not more, is detailing what actually happens in your story. This is where you can get an agent wanting more. They are people and so they will relate to your personal achievements, but what they care far more about than anything else is that you can write well. Make sure you show this off as much as you can.
MAKE IT EXCITING! You probably shouldn’t shout. You should make sure that your love for your story is clearly transmitted though – and why you think this agent would be absolutely mad to pass on it. Like me, you may not find selling your story easy or natural, but push yourself out of your comfort zone. Grab a trumpet and blow it.
When I was querying I loved reading the letters that a real life agent read and liked enough to request a full – so here is the letter that I sent to my now agent, Rachel Mann.
Disclaimer: You will realise quite quickly as you read why this is no longer the story we are working on. And if you’re reading this a while after COVID-19 was a THING, I decided that writing a story about a virus wiping out most of the human race was not what I wanted to work on in the midst of an actual pandemic.
West is everything that Jay is not; logical, practical, and physically fit. He thinks that Jay’s plan to travel to find a peaceful community of survivors is great, and he is ruthless in his commitment to helping Jay achieve his aim. Neither young man is good at handling change, and although they clash constantly, as they plan and travel their friendship blossoms. It could become something more if they realise their plans don’t make sense anymore because they’ve got everything they need exactly where they are.
I didn’t read much this month, but revisited four favourites. I’m finding comfort at the moment in the familiar. Reading a book that you already know you’re going to love is a real treat!
Robin Hobb is one of the best fantasy writers I’ve read. Assassin’s Apprentice is the first in an epic series that follows the misadventures of Fitz throughout his whole life. I find these books gentle and engaging, a perfect blend between in-depth character study and winding plot. I’m going to be gradually reading through all three of these trilogies, so why not grab the first two books this month to catch up with me?
I actually have two copies of The Complete Brambly Hedge. This was such a childhood favourite that my original copy is falling apart at the seams. I would spend hours absorbing each tiny detail of Jill Barklem’s beautiful illustrations, my tummy rumbling over the MANY descriptions of delicious food. In this time of huge uncertainty, I found returning to these stories calming. I read one each night before bed, taking my time on every page to mark all those things I’d loved about them when I was younger. This is a book I will read to my children, and that I hope they will then pass on to theirs.
Me being me is exactly as insane as you being you by Todd Hasak-Lowy may be my favourite YA book ever. Told in lists, some with just one-word answers, some that wander over pages, this is a beautiful story of a young man coping with massive change in his family, the adjustment to adulthood, and first love. When I finished it I read the last ten or so pages again, simply because I really didn’t want it to be over.
Read all of these and we can be BEST friends, okay?
I did read two lush books in April though. If you have never read Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, please do! It’s one of my absolute favourites ever. I don’t know about you, but I’m turning back to the books I love as a source of comfort through this odd time. That’s what The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers is for me. It’s set on a small spaceship, with a cast of weird and wonderful characters (some are aliens!), and it is one of the kindest and gentlest books I can remember reading. It’s one I’ve already read three times, and I’m sure I will return to it many more!
Loneliness was the predominate emotion I carried during my time querying. Of course there were the crushing blows when an agent who was perfect passed on my submission, and the highs when my full manuscript was requested, but most of the time… I felt alone.
It felt kinda shameful to get rejected, especially so consistently. I didn’t want to tell people just how many agents weren’t interested in my book. I focused on the high moments and kept the lows to myself. But they festered within me.
Well-intentioned people asked how my book was going and if I felt brave I would tell them about querying. Most of the time, they wouldn’t understand I was baring my soul, and they would say nice things about it happening soon.
Only thing was, it didn’t happen soon. After over 100 rejections I had to give up. And I made that decision alone. Beaten down by the sheer disinterest in a book I’d loved and worked so hard to bring into being, I decided I couldn’t go on.
I picked myself up. I wrote another book, and then another. I queried again. I talked a little bit more about rejection because I knew there had to be other people out there fighting so damn hard to get their stories into the world, but all the time I felt like I was flailing in the dark. I didn’t have someone to talk to, someone who was a little bit further along in the process, who could give me practical advice and inspiration.
So, that’s what I want to offer to you. I don’t feel qualified to talk about many writerly type things, but rejection is one I feel like I’ve got pretty well covered! I want to offer an online course, set over a number of weeks, with a small number of participants, that really gets into the emotional baggage of querying, which delves into how to write a kick-ass letter and synopsis, and will give you a boost to KEEP GOING.
Essentially, the courses I’m going to offer are the ones I wish had been around when I was querying. I’m creating a retroactive wish-list!
I’m not pretending that I know everything, or that if you take part in this course you will never get rejected again. But I want to offer what I can to those in a situation I was in until very recently, and which I honestly struggled with. I want to offer inspiration, tips and a new group of chums to fight through the toughness with.
You can learn more about the rejection course here. I wanted it to be affordable, accessible, and … I feel like I want another A word here but … ASPIRATIONAL! Yeah, let’s go with that 😊
Join with me to banish the loneliness. Find others in the same situation as you and learn ways tocope with the crazy rollercoaster of emotions. Have fun and don’t stop until you get your YES.
My reading in March took a bit of a hit. I can’t think why!
I did read two completely stonking books though 😊 Recursion by Blake Crouch is an immense, mind-bending thriller. I wasn’t actually clever enough to understand all of this book, but the bits I could grasp blew my mind. If you enjoy time-travel and books that hit you in the face with science-based action, then this is one for you! Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce is Completely Lush. Could not put it down. Set during WWII, it follows a young woman’s dream to become a journalist, which is Very Quickly Thwarted. Dealing with profound issues of loss and trauma in a gentle and joyous way, this book is one I would recommend at any time, but particularly in this odd period! One other author I want to give a particular shout-out to is Jenny Colgan. All of her books are a jolly escape into idyllic lives – great for when the world seems to be crumbling around us…
As always, read them all and then we can be chums 😊
David Owen’s fourth book was released this month, and he generously agreed to answer some of my questions about his books, reading, and writing 😊 If you don’t already, go follow him on Twitter, he is an irreverent voice in the sometimes slightly too serious world of publishing…
Tell me about your latest book
It’s called Grief Angels, and it’s kind of a double-edged sword. On one side it’s a contemporary YA narrative focusing on a new friendship between two misfit boys – Duncan and Owen. On the other side it is a fantasy narrative, as Owen is periodically pulled through to a mysterious forest realm where he must contend with lost spirits, shapeshifting monsters, and newfound powers. Think along the lines of A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness or Eren by Simon P. Clark.
Grief Angels is about grief… shockingly! In its most obvious definition (Owen is dealing with complex feelings around the death of his father), but also in a broader sense; how grief can be tied into growing up, losing friendships, and nostalgia. Basically, I find it impossible to come up with a brief elevator pitch for it!
Thankfully, the frankly jaw dropping artwork by Leo Nickolls, on both the front cover and some chapter illustrations throughout, sell it better than my attempt to blurb it!
Tell me about your writing week
My writing has to fit around my full-time job, so I don’t have a particularly glamorous schedule. I’ll get home from work around 6pm and aim to be at my desk by 6.45pm. Then I’ll write until 9-9.30pm. I also usually try and write for three to four hours on one weekend day, and then have the other off, but if I’m deep in edits or close to the end of a draft I sometimes just keep going for it.
It can be a frustrating way to write because there isn’t time for multiple projects and some evenings I’m just too tired to manage anything, BUT having limited time does motivate me to actually use it productively.
Tell me about your agent
I’m represented by Ella Kahn at Diamond Kahn and Woods. Everybody always spells her surname incorrectly.
I submitted to Ella when she was an assistant at a larger agency. She read my submission and passed it up the ladder, but unfortunately it didn’t get any further. However, Ella was planning to launch her own agency so she tucked my submission away for later. Several months down the line she got in touch to ask if I was still seeking representation.
That’s why she felt like the right person – because she was passionate enough about my writing to keep me in her mind and ultimately make me her first client.
Tell me about the kinds of books you like to read
I generally like to read books that are a little bit dark and have a unique central idea. That might be really high concept sci fi or fantasy, or a theme or voice I haven’t read before. If a book isn’t striving to do something original, I need it to be doing what it’s doing really well.
One of the best novels I’ve read so far this year is Nothing Ever Happens Here by Sarah Hagger-Holt. This is a super-sweet story about a child dealing with her father coming out as trans. Another of my recent favourites was Bearmouth by Liz Hyder. It’s a totally unique young adult novel written in colloquial voice – it really filled me with hope! And one more is Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah, which is like nothing I’ve ever read before. It’s like a kaleidoscope of video game NPC side-quests collapsing into each other.
I’ve also got into graphic novels recently. It feels like a different kind of reading that gives me a new perspective on writing and storytelling. That’s proved really refreshing. One I’ve been raving about is Rusty Brown by Chris Ware. It’s a simultaneously sprawling and intimate look at mundane lives in a rural US town, which is insanely ambitious. Usually a bit sad and full of disappointment – a bit like reality!
Any advice for aspiring authors?
My only advice is pretty well worn.
Reading widely will help with your craft, keep you inspired, and improve your market awareness. However, don’t worry too much about the latest trends. Unless you get really lucky, you’re only going to end up chasing them and will always be behind. Write what you feel strongly about and worry about where it fits on the shelves later.
Just keep writing. Even when it feels like you’re only producing rubbish, even when you hit a brick wall, even when you reach the middle of a project and realise it’s not working. Sooner or later something will click and you’ll be glad you persevered.
Buy Greif Angels from all good bookshops (or take it out at your local library), and keep up to date with David’s news (and important pictures of his cats) on Twitter or by visiting his website😊
Although I read slightly fewer books in February, I am still on my way to reading 120 books this year 😊 All my faves have a little heart next to them.
Heartstopper Vol 3 carries on one of the cutest and most relatable love stories being told at the moment. I highly recommend to any fans of graphic novels! I, Cosmo is a masterclass in voice. The story is told from the point of view of an incredibly believable Golden Retriever. It’s a great one for any dog lovers out there! I’m not normally a fan of historical novels but We Must Be Brave is phenomenal. Set during World War Two and spanning over 50 years, it follows one woman’s journey through destitution, finding family, the struggles of the war, and tells the story of the heart-grabbing love between a mother and a daughter. The Silent Patient blew me away. I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to ruin it… so just read it, okay?
In fact, read them all and then we can be friends 😊