Writing

Writing and Editing Tips – Capitalising Kinship Names #amwriting #writingcommunity

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Kinship names are the words we use to indicate family members, like mum, mom, dad, aunt etc. Incorrect capitalisation of these names is a huge bugbear of mine. I see it done incorrectly in so many self-published books, and more and more in traditionally published  books too.

It seems to cause a lot of confusion, when it’s really actually very simple:

Capitalise when the name immediately precedes a personal name, or when the name is used alone in place of an actual name.

So:

Did you remember to get Mum a birthday card?

We went to see Dad when he was in hospital.

Lily and Joe loved visiting Aunt Susie’s house.

I was seven when I last saw Grandma.

Don’t capitalise when these words follow the personal name, when they don’t refer to a specific person or when they are used with possessive nouns or pronouns.

So:

The Sinfield sisters always stuck together.

There aren’t many dads who would do that.

My aunt wasn’t feeling well.

I bought a card for my mum.

Sally’s grandma lived next door.

Many children’s books portray families and use these terms and I shudder each time I see it done incorrectly. Children learn from the books they read. It’s up to writers and editors to make sure we get it right.

 

The Blurb and the Synopsis – Know the Difference #amwriting #writingcommunity #writingtips

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I’ve seen a lot of posts on Goodreads lately where an author posts their blurb and asks for advice and feedback. The biggest issue I’ve seen is that the blurbs are far too long and detailed and read more like a synopsis. It’s really important to get the blurb right – its purpose is to attract a reader, to make them want to read your book. And if you’re approaching agents, you really need to nail that synopsis. I’ve posted on this subject before – but I can’t give this advice often enough.

What is a blurb?

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The blurb is the hook, along with the cover, to reel those readers in. You need to make sure that you entice your reader, that you intrigue them without giving too much away. Longer than the elevator pitch, but shorter than a synopsis, the book blurb is key to whetting a reader’s appetite.

So how should you approach it? Here are some quick tips on getting that blurb up to scratch.

  • Keep it short. This is NOT a synopsis. You want a couple of two to three line paragraphs. Too much and you risk giving too much away and turning off your reader. Too little and you might miss the mark.
  • Mention your main character(s). It’s important for your reader to know who the book is about.
  • Be precise. There is no place or space for vagueness, long-windedness or clever clever vocabulary in your blurb. Short, sharp, to the point.
  • Make it interesting. Obviously. What’s intriguing about the story? Why would I want to read it?
  • Don’t give away the ending. It might sound silly to even point that out – but it does happen.
  • Don’t compare yourself to other writers or compare the book to other books. Tell your potential reader that you’re the next J.K Rowling or Stephen King and you’re more likely to annoy them than anything.
  • Watch out for clichés or overused words and phrases. Try and be refreshing and new. And interesting.

What is a synopsis?

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A synopsis is basically a summary, or outline, of your novel. If you are approaching agents or publishers, they will want to see a synopsis. A synopsis is not a blurb and you should not include a synopsis on Amazon, Goodreads or wherever you are selling your book.

First of all, check what the agent/publisher is looking for. They may well specify a length and may want you to write a chapter by chapter synopsis. If there are no specifications, then I would advise sticking to one page, single-spaced, six hundred words maximum.

Remember to write in third person (even if your novel is written in first person). Use active voice and present tense.

Now to the actual writing of the synopsis itself.

When I was studying literature, we learnt a lot about narrative structure, and although it might not initially seem like it, most novels do fit into this basic structure:

  • Set up – main characters introduced. Introduction of the problem.
  • Conflict – the main body of the story. There is a catalyst that sets the conflict in motion. Characters go through changes because of this conflict and develop – the character arc.
  • Resolution – the problem is confronted and solved – or not – and loose ends are tied up.

To write your synopsis, it is really helpful to look at your novel in these terms and break it down into this structure. Start with the set up – who is the protagonist? The other main characters? What is the problem?

Then move on to the conflict – there may be more than one. Decide what conflicts, plot twists and turns are really important; what do you need to include for the ending, the resolution, to make sense? How does this conflict change the main characters?

Finish with the resolution. Remember – this isn’t a blurb. The agent/publisher needs to know how your novel ends.

Remember:

  • Don’t get caught up in too much detail. Think about what’s really important.
  • Don’t include lots of backstory – you don’t have the space.
  • Be short, concise, clear. This isn’t the time for showing off your beautiful prose. That’s what the sample chapters are for.
  • Agents/publishers are looking for something new, something exciting – if your novel has that (and it should) then make sure your synopsis makes that clear.
  • And please, please, please remember the point I made above. This is not a blurb. You MUST include the ending.

Good luck!

Women in Historical Fiction #InternationalWomensDay #IWD2019

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I recently read a lovely book, ‘The Story Collector’ by Evie Gaughan, (review to follow soon) in which the historical female protagonist is that rare thing – a woman in historical fiction who actually behaves within the constraints and confines of her time. It reminded me of this post that I wrote a while ago, and, as the problem of ‘feisty’, unrealistic historical heroines is still one that I come across with depressing regularity, I thought I would post it again, in honour of International Women’s Day.

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My recent post about the portrayal of women of a certain age in fiction certainly seemed to strike a chord with many of you. So I thought I’d have another bit of a rant – this time about the way women are portrayed in historical fiction.

Now, I’m not talking about historical romance here, because to be honest it’s not a genre I read and I know that the female characters  don’t really have to be historically accurate (and I don’t mean that to sound demeaning).

In the historical fiction that I enjoy, there will be strong, likeable, intelligent female characters. These characters will often be inspiring and admirable. There are enough real historical women who have acted bravely and out of the bounds of convention after all. But, without exception, all of these women would have found it tough, and would have met resistance and hostility and often real danger.

So what really gets on my nerves in historical fiction is women who act rashly, or who are rebellious, or adventurous and who do these things without any consequences whatsoever. Women of upper class families who go out on their own, for example, without permission. And this is acceptable because after all, she’s a feisty one (god how I hate that word) and it’s all just a bit of a giggle.

And women who show no fear. Who stand up to adversity and discrimination and their fear, their anger, their frustration isn’t portrayed. I’m willing to bet everything I have that every single woman who stood on the gallows, accused of witchcraft was utterly, completely terrified. That every single woman who fell under suspicion and was arrested and tortured felt helpless. That every single woman who wanted more for herself than to be a wife or a mother felt totally frustrated and angry.

In too many books and films these women stand up for themselves and are defiant. Would they really have been? Or would they have crumbled, and cried and begged for mercy? And wouldn’t you? I think we do a disservice to these women when we write their feelings out of our fiction. These women were often completely, utterly, helpless and alone and would have had no agency at all. There would have been no one, absolutely no one to help them. It would have done no good for to be feisty. They just had to bear it and they just had to suffer.

I began reading a book the other week that was a best seller. The author is well-respected and very, very successful. I’ll admit I had my reservations before I began. The book is set in France, in the occupation. In the opening scenes, a local woman, very young, very clever, very outspoken, is put into a very difficult and scary situation that could end with her being killed. But she’s fine, because she’s strong, and brave and clever and beautiful and feisty. She stands up to the nasty Gestapo officer. And all is fine.

How utterly insulting to all those women who were left to deal with the occupation and who did whatever they could to keep themselves sand their children safe. What a judgement on those who weren’t feisty enough or pretty enough or brave enough. I wouldn’t be brave in that situation. I doubt that I’d stand up for myself.

I know fiction is make-believe. I know that people can act differently in fictional worlds to how they act in the real world. But I also feel so strongly that we owe it to the millions and millions of women that have suffered, that have been tortured and murdered and abused and vilified and subjugated, to portray them honestly. A woman that confessed under torture to things she hadn’t done, a woman that betrayed someone because she was scared for her children, a woman that didn’t do all the things she was capable of because she COULDN’T. Because not everyone was bloody Florence Nightingale (although she certainly had her struggles too). These women are part of female history too. And if you’re writing historical fiction, please show these women how they would have been. And please do remember – there weren’t many happy endings.

Authors – please choose your editor carefully #writingcommunity #amwriting #selfpublishing

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As I have said many times, I love my clients. I love working with them and I feel privileged that they choose to share their writing with me. I am often the first person to have read their work and I really appreciate how brave that can be.

So I do feel a little bit protective towards the writing community. And I am a little tired of seeing people taking advantage of these lovely writers.

I have seen lots and lots of people recently selling their services to writers. Not a problem – it’s what I do. But increasingly these people have no experience whatsoever – they just seem very, very good at giving the impression that they do.

Now, I have no problem with entrepreneurs, or people trying to make a living. What I do have a problem with is people who have maybe written one or two books (not necessarily good ones either) setting themselves up as experts. I have seen in the last few weeks the author of one book (a book that hasn’t sold many copies and has few reviews) pitching themselves as an editor, proofreader, and self-publishing advisor. This person also sells books on how to write.

Now, I may not be a wildly successful author. But, I do have  a first degree in English Language and Literature, a master’s degree in creative writing, I’m a qualified and experienced freelance journalist and copy writer, and have had hundreds of articles published. I have edited three hundred fiction and non-fiction books. I have plenty of testimonials. I know lots of other editors with similar backgrounds, all of whom provide excellent services.

We have qualifications and experience. We know what we’re talking about. We earn the money you lovely writers pay us.

Over the years I’ve been editing I have worked with so many clients who are paying me after they’ve already paid an inexperienced, unqualified person who has set themselves up in business. These manuscripts are often full of the most basic grammatical errors, unnatural dialogue, cliched descriptions and similes, and dreadful dialogue tags. In short, the author has been diddled.

And the big problem is that often new writers don’t realise they’re being given the wrong advice. They assume that what the editor is telling them is correct.

Please, lovely authors, you’re worth more than that. Look really carefully into your editor’s background. Ask for testimonials, look for experience and qualifications. Be very, very careful.

And arm yourselves with knowledge too. If you know basic grammar rules, understand what helps to make good writing, can punctuate properly, you’ll be able to tell if an editor is all they’re cracked up to be.

And would-be editors, proofreaders, ‘experts’ – I’m not saying that you’re excluded from some club if you lack these things. These skills can be learnt, after all. But don’t charge authors money for old rope. Learn your skills, practice, get experience first.

And remember – writing a book doesn’t make you an expert on writing.

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Using Feedback #amwriting #writingcommunity #writingtips

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One of the most difficult things to deal with when writing a novel is getting feedback, whether this is from a friend, a beta reader or an editor. Honestly – it can be completely terrifying. I know this from experience having written two books myself. The first experience I had of getting feedback on a piece of fiction was when I began studying for my master’s in creative writing. A huge part of the course was the workshop. We took it in turns to send a few chapters of our WIPs to everyone in the group and then a week or so later we would gather (online) to discuss that writing. The first time it was my turn I actually felt physically sick. I was terrified that the other students would hate my work, that they would destroy it. So, as an editor, I do completely understand how nerve-wracking it is to get that feedback. And sometimes it’s not only terrifying, it’s also confusing, especially when two or more of your readers or editors have completely different opinions about your work. So how do you deal with feedback?

Feedback from Beta Readers

So you’ve sent out your manuscript to five beta readers and you have five conflicting opinions about it. What should you do?

First, step back and coolly asses your betas. Whose opinion do you really trust? If one of them is your mum, then she’s probably not the one to go with.

Then go with your gut – you know if someone’s comments rings true, if something makes you think ‘Oh yeah. That’s a good point’. You need to be honest with yourself.

Look for common threads. If three of your betas hate the same thing, but one loves it, then it’s probably safe to go with the majority.

Feedback from Editors

Again, take a step back. Yes, that’s difficult; your work is so personal to you, so much a part of you. But feedback is vital to improve your craft. So put the process into perspective. Your editor is (hopefully) trying to help you. Their criticisms (if they’re any good) should be constructive. Trust me, when I give feedback on a manuscript, I’m not trying to hurt your feelings, or upset you or belittle you. But it would do you no good whatsoever if I wasn’t honest. I want to help you. So bear that in mind and try to be objective when you look at feedback.

Make sure you understand what your editor is trying to tell you. If you don’t understand their comments or you need some clarification, then ask. Personally, I feel that if a writer comes back to me about a point I’ve raised, then it’s my job to address their concerns. Just because I’ve finished the edit, it doesn’t mean I can no longer answer questions or provide feedback. A caveat though – don’t take advantage of your editor’s good nature; ask a question, accept the answer, but don’t expect a long-running dialogue. And don’t argue either – you’ve asked me for my professional opinion, I’ve given it and I’ve given my reasons for that opinion. It serves no purpose if you don’t agree for us to have back and forth emails about it.

Remember – you own the story. You don’t have to do what your editor says. It’s entirely up to you. But do remember that your editor is not your enemy. We don’t sit there trying to pick faults – we want to help you make your manuscript the best it can be. So if we say something you don’t agree with, take a deep breath, read the criticism again and really think about it. Does your editor have a point?

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Fabulous Opening Lines #amwriting #CharlesDickens

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Charles Dickens was born on this day in 1812. One of my favourite writers, he has a lot to teach us today (and some of his compassion and philanthropy wouldn’t go amiss either).

I wrote this post about opening lines a few years ago, but Dickens was the master of them, so in celebration of his birthday, here it is again.

The opening line for your novel must draw your reader in. They should read that first line and think: I need to read this book. I want to know what happens.

So how do you create a great first line? That’s a difficult thing to try and explain. The best thing to do, as with most things, is to read. And when you read, think about your reaction to that opening line. Do you want to read on? If so, why? And if not, why not? I can do no better, though, than to share these wonderful first lines:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

Charles Dickens: A Tale Of Two Cities (1859)

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)

“You better not never tell nobody but God.”

Alice Walker: The Color Purple (1982)

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”

Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar (1963)

“It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.”

Joseph Heller: Catch-22 (1961)

“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”

Christopher Isherwood: Goodbye To Berlin (1939)

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”

Dodie Smith: I Capture the Castle (1948)

“Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.”

Albert Camus: The Stranger (1946)

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

J.D Salinger: The Catcher In The Rye (1951)

Got a favourite opening line? Share it by leaving a comment below.

 

The Five Most Common Errors to Avoid in Your Writing #editingtips #amwriting #selfpublishing #writingcommunity

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I’ve been editing for a few years now, and the same issues come up again and again. Here are the five most common:

Unnecessary dialogue tags

It is best, on the whole,  to stick to ‘said’ and ‘asked’. There are a few reasons for this. Readers are so used to seeing ‘said’ and ‘asked’ that they skim over them, noting quickly who is ‘saying’ or ‘asking’ and getting on with the important things. The flow of the writing isn’t interrupted, the reader reads on smoothly and happily. If a dialogue tag suddenly crops up, like ‘chuckled’ or ‘screamed’, or, possibly worst of all, ‘interjected’, the reader is forced to pause, to think about the tag. The flow is interrupted, and for no purpose. A dialogue tag is only there to identify who has spoken. It shouldn’t need to tell the reader anything else. The character’s words, their actions and their situation should be sufficient.

Physical description

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It’s really only necessary to include physical description if it is relevant to the story. If you do want to have some physical description, then rather than have the details all together when you introduce a character, intersperse them gradually through the narrative, using actions/dialogue etc. For example:

She shook her head, her dark eyes flashing.

‘What do you want?’ he asked, pushing a strand of his unruly curly hair behind one ear.

This way, you continue moving the story along without holding the narrative up.

Bear in mind too that you don’t need every detail of every movement. Your readers can fill in the gaps. Your reader doesn’t need to be told every move a character makes. Give enough information to build a scene, show what’s important, and let your reader fill in the details.

Exposition issues

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Be very careful of using exposition. Exposition is important in a manuscript – it gives us vital background information about a character’s past, their likes and dislikes, their beliefs and motivations as well as context and prior events. But the crucial thing about exposition is that it needs to be handled very carefully – it’s the way that you do it that matters.

You need to ‘show’ your reader information, not simply ‘tell’ them. This way you ‘expose’ the back story without being boring. And some of the best ways to do this are through dialogue, conflict, revealing a character’s thoughts and using physical props such as newspapers, letters and emails.

For example, have your characters talk to each other  about events that have happened, what those events meant to them, how they felt and reacted to those events.  But you need your dialogue to be realistic. Don’t use it as a way of dumping information. And make sure your characters never tell each other things they already know – it’s obvious that this is for the benefit of the reader rather than a natural part of their conversation.

Too many adverbs

Adverbs modify verbs. If you’re using an adverb to modify a verb, then ask yourself why you need to. Is the verb not doing its job? If the verb alone can’t tell your reader how someone or something is doing something without an adverb, then is it the right one to use?

For example:

John walked quickly down the street.

You want your reader to know how John walked, so if he’s walking quickly, then say so – right? Well, no.

John hurried down the street.

One word instead of two – tells us exactly how John is moving.

How about:

She totally, completely accepted that her work needed editing.

Neither of those two adverbs is needed. Just say:

She accepted that her work needed editing.

(Actually get rid of ‘that’ too!)

There are also adverbs that are totally redundant.

The fire alarm rang loudly.

How else would it ring? It wouldn’t be much use as a fire alarm if it rang quietly.

And if it is ‘clanging’ then ‘loudly’ is also redundant – the word ‘clanging’ implies loudness.

Similes and metaphors

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A clever, well-thought out simile or metaphor can add a deeper meaning to your narrative. It can give your reader a new way of looking at things. But similes and metaphors need to be handled very carefully indeed. Only use them if they add something new or interesting to a description. Otherwise, they jar and only serve to remind the reader that they are reading a book. You are crafting a world that your reader needs to believe in in order to be invested in your story. As with dialogue tags, an awkward or clichéd simile brings them out of that world that you have carefully constructed. A clunky metaphor will do the same.

 

 

‘The Cheque’s in the Post’ – how to not annoy your editor! #amwriting #selfpublishing #writingcommunity

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I’ve been editing for a while now and the majority of my clients have been an absolute joy to work with – open to advice, professional, and just downright nice. That said, I’ve had a few not so pleasant experiences over the last few months and felt it was time to address some issues that unfortunately seem to be becoming quite common.

So here’s my advice on having a professional and constructive relationship with your editor.

Punctuality

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I have many hats. Editor, writer, reviewer are just some of them. I have a full schedule and am usually booked in advance (for which I am very grateful). I have to stick to my schedule to avoid infringing on the time set aside for my next project. So if you agree to get a manuscript to me by a certain date, please make sure you do so. I work hard to stick to deadlines I’ve agreed to, and to make sure I bear my client’s own schedules in mind, so please grant me the same consideration.

Formatting

I’m clear about how I would like you to format your manuscript before sending it to me. Please adhere to this – and if for some reason you can’t, then just let me know. Which leads to my next point.

Communication

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I appreciate that sometimes things happen, that there are circumstances beyond our control, and I try to be flexible as much as I can. But please communicate. Send me an email. Call me. Just let me know what’s happening. I recently agreed to a client deferring payment of her deposit. I kept that spot for her. She didn’t pay, ignored all my emails, and I couldn’t fill that space at such short notice, so I had a week where I had no income. Unprofessional and totally unfair. It also means that I’m now wary of being that flexible for other clients. If she had just been honest and emailed me to say that she could no longer use the space I may have been able to reschedule or find another client.

Money matters

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This is probably my biggest bugbear. I appreciate that editing costs money. But if you have decided to hire an editor, then please make sure you have the money in place to pay them for the work they do. I ask for a deposit when a client books a place, but I have had several occasions recently where a deposit has been paid, but the client has then either delayed or not paid the balance once the edit is completed. This isn’t because they are unhappy with the edit – in fact on all these occasions the client has been very pleased with my work. On one occasion, the client emailed to say they were very happy with their edit, and then simply ignored every request for payment. Other clients have deferred and deferred. While I appreciate that some circumstances are beyond people’s control, please do remember that your editor may be relying on your payment. It isn’t fair to expect someone to wait for a payment from you because of circumstances that are nothing to do with them. Without naming names, one of my clients didn’t pay because he had to fund repairs to his car. But what if I’d needed to pay for repairs to my car and was relying on his payment to do that? If you’ve booked a service, agreed to a contract, and the other party has fulfilled their obligations, then you should pay what you owe. It really isn’t fair to expect to do otherwise and it’s completely unprofessional – you wouldn’t tell a plumber you couldn’t pay once he’d fixed your tap, so why is it ok to not pay your editor?

Don’t take it personally

I get it. I’m a writer. It hurts to have our work criticised when we’ve put our heart and soul into it. But if you want to be an author, if you want to be taken seriously as an author, then you need to be able to listen to feedback. I’m not out to be nasty or unkind, but I am honest and I will tell you what isn’t working. Please take that criticism and advice in the spirit in which it’s intended. I would be doing you a disservice and wasting your money for you if I just told you your book was wonderful.

Understand the role

A client recently complained that while I had pointed out places where things needed reworking and had provided examples of how he might do this, I hadn’t actually rewritten those parts for him. This is not your editor’s job. Your editor is not there to write your novel for you. I can guide you, advise you, restructure things so that you can see how they might be improved, suggest how you might improve things, tell you what needs developing and where things don’t work – but I cannot, will not and should not rewrite your manuscript. An editor isn’t a ghost writer.

I’m sorry if this feels like a rant – honestly, 99.9% of my clients are lovely, friendly, professional people and I love working with them. I can’t tell you how lovely it is when they take the time to tell me how my work has helped with their book. However, these bad experiences seem to be becoming more commonplace and it’s a worrying trend. But to the clients that do make my work a joy – thank you!

 

Yes, we do judge a book by its cover! #writingtips #amwriting

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It’s a very old and very well-known saying that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But this is a saying that shouldn’t be taken literally. While I urge you not to judge other things in life by their appearance (particularly people!), it’s usually a safe bet that a poorly designed book cover means a poorly executed book.

Unfair? Well, taking off my editor hat and putting on my reader hat for a minute, if I’m going to spend my (very) hard-earned cash on a book, I want to make sure I spend it wisely. And what have I got to go on when I browse the endless goodies on offer on Amazon? I have the blurb, (please authors – get this right. It is NOT a synopsis), the reviews (if I can trust them), and I have the cover. And I won’t get to the blurb or the reviews if the cover doesn’t grab me in the first place.

A good, well-thought out, attention-grabbing cover tells me that this author cares – cares about their work, cares about their book, cares about their reader. A poorly executed cover sends warning bells ringing that this author hasn’t researched the self-publishing world thoroughly, doesn’t understand what they need to do to publish successfully, and has probably rushed to publish.

So what makes a good cover, and what doesn’t? And what should you bear in mind when designing your cover?

Think thumbnails. Will your cover stand out in that tiny, tiny little space it will have in a search?
Think genre. What’s your book about? If it’s a romance, go for an image that says romance. If it’s a gritty detective story, then show that in your cover. Don’t be vague, and don’t overthink it.
Think trends. I hate to say it, but there are fashions in book covers as there are in anything else. Look at other books in your genre and see what’s popular at the moment. People know what they like and they may go for a book by an author they don’t know if the cover reminds them of a book they’ve liked (although don’t plagiarise, obviously). But do give it your own twist and be original too.
Think title. Make sure it stands out and that people can read it. Make sure the font is clear and big enough.
I’ve seen covers with dreadful hand-drawn images, cut and paste pictures that are the wrong size and perspective, and random images that have nothing to do with the book itself. There are blogs devoted to showcasing the worst of these – which, while it’s easy to laugh, it’s also heart-breaking that these authors haven’t done the research and have set themselves up for ridicule.

Self-publishing can be an expensive business – but there are some things that cannot be scrimped on. Editing, proofreading and a great book cover are worth investing in. There are some great designers out there who do a good job and don’t cost the earth (although you shouldn’t expect to pay peanuts for a professional). Research, ask for recommendations; if you see a self-published book with a great cover ask the author who designed it – most will be more than happy to give you a recommendation. If you’ve spent time crafting a wonderful novel, give it the polish and packaging it deserves.

Writing About Mental Health #mentalhealth #amwriting

 

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I’ve read, and edited, a lot of books that address the many issues associated with mental health. Whether fiction or non-fiction, it is so important that the writer gets the details right, and, unfortunately, many do get things wrong, sometimes very wrong.

According to the mental health charity Mind, approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. So fiction writers are absolutely right to include characters with these issues in their work. And self-publishing has meant that the self-help market has exploded, with many writing about their experiences and offering advice.

As someone with direct experience of these issues, I can’t stress enough how damaging it can be for authors and writers to get these things wrong. The wrong choice of word, the wrong representation, and you add to the enormous amount of stereotypes and misinformation out there, adding to the already difficult barriers and misconceptions that people have to struggle with every day. So how can you get it right? What should you do and what shouldn’t you do?

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Fiction

Interesting characters, characters that your reader can identify with, are so important when writing fiction. And as mental health issues are so common, it is right that these things should be included in fiction. So how do you do this successfully?

  1. Avoid the stereotypes

Remember that mental health is complex. It comes in many forms. People with OCD don’t all spend hours a day washing their hands, and if they do it isn’t always because they have a fear of germs. And you don’t have OCD if you like to keep your books in alphabetical order and you’re very tidy. People with depression aren’t just sad. You have a responsibility, as a writer, to explode those myths and to make your characters realistic.

  1. People with mental health issues are more than their issues

They have jobs. They have families. They have hobbies. They might be horrible people. They might be heroes. Their mental health might be a big part of them – but it isn’t everything they are. They still eat breakfast. They still fall in love. They still like music and going out and films and everything else that ‘normal’ people do. Make your character the centre of your story – and that means their whole character.

  1. Do your research

As with everything you write, get your facts straight. Research, read, ask. There’s a wealth of information out there and in this day and age there’s no excuse for getting it wrong.  This goes for finding out how a character with a certain issue might behave all the way through to making sure the drugs/therapy/attitudes towards that person are consistent with the time in which your book is set.

Non-fiction

As someone who has experience of dealing with mental health issues, I can attest to the benefits that can be gained from reading self-help books. It’s wonderful to know that others have the same issues and it can be inspirational and motivational to learn about the strategies they have used that have worked. That said, I have also read a lot of rubbish – opinions and misinformation bandied about as if it’s the gospel truth. This is not only patronising, it can also be downright dangerous.

  1. Be honest

Why are you writing this book? Do you have experience? Qualifications? Or do you just have an agenda, or a theory you think is relevant that you want to share? If the former, then go right ahead, but if it’s the latter then please find something else to write about. I read a book recently that explained that the best way to get over depression was to have a positive mindset. Wow. I’m sure all those people who battle depression daily really wish they’d thought of that. To write so flippantly about something as complex as depression is not only patronising, it is irresponsible in the extreme. To write about depression, or anxiety, or OCD, or anything else, you need to understand the issue thoroughly.

  1. Again, do your research

It’s absolutely vital that you know and understand your subject. You wouldn’t write a book on coping with any other type of illness unless you had been through it yourself, had helped someone through, or if you actually had qualifications and experience in the field. Writing about mental health for the non-fiction market is no different.

  1. Be aware of your responsibilities

Imagine you are struggling with depression. You buy a self-help book. And you’re told it’s just down to you – you just need to be positive. Imagine the effect that can have on someone. Your words matter. Be careful how you use them.

There are some amazing books about mental health out there, both fiction and non-fiction. If you want to research mental health, or if you have mental health issues yourself, then I wholeheartedly recommend the following to begin with:

Jenny Lawson:

Furiously Happy

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened

You Are Here

David Adam:

The Man Who Couldn’t Stop

Joanne Limburg:

The Woman Who Thought Too Much

And there’s plenty of help and advice here too:

Mind

OCD UK

Young Minds

Beat

Bipolar UK