Friday, 24 February 2012

Linghams: a winning bookseller

The Bookseller has published the regional winners for Independent Bookshop of the Year.
The seven winners are:
  • · The Bookshop Kibworth ­(Midland & Wales)
  • · Dulwich Books (London)
  • · The Gutter Bookshop (Ireland)
  • · The St Ives Bookshop (south-west)
  • · The Mainstreet Trading Company (Scotland)
  • · Linghams Booksellers in Heswall (north)
  • · The Chorleywood Bookshop (south-east)
We interviewed the owners of the Chorleywood Bookshop in the February edition of Words with Jam.
Today, we have a review of Linghams Booksellers from Lisa Hinsley.
Walking into Linghams, I was greeted by cooking smells (of the baked, sweet variety), soft music playing in the background, and the sound of chatter and the occasional clink of dishes and cutlery from the small café in the back. It’s a nice way to enter a shop, and the feeling was instantly homely and relaxing.

Linghams is not a very big shop. Although it’s small, everything is intricately laid out. Built-in bookshelves line the walls, with nooks created where worn leather sofas have reading lamps to make browsing incredibly comfortable. The different sections are small – seems to be one
of everything they could manage to squeeze in. Interestingly they have three bays of shelves behind one of the two cash registers dedicated to customer orders.

As with many independent bookshops, Linghams has branched out including games, greetings cards, wrapping paper, posters and local art. In fact they seem generally supportive of local talent with a local interest section packed to the gills with everything from books to walking maps to interesting places to visit and local history tomes.

The children’s section fills the largest part of the shop. I think it took up at least a quarter of the shop floor, and is decorated with colourful designs. I think this is a brilliant way of getting kids started on books when young.

Amongst the shelves were staff pick tags. They have a short - perhaps one or two sentence - review of the book and the name of the staff member. It really made the books stand out, and certainly led to me picking a few works up.

Dotted around the shop are many posters and signs telling the customers about author events and the Linghams book club, and as you get to the back of the shop, you go through to the café – a lively and social area, for tea and cakes. A perfect place to sit and make a start on new reading material.

I was impressed with Linghams, not just for the relaxing atmosphere, but the staff members were friendly and for such a small space, the variety of books on offer was impressive. As a local, I left chastising myself that I don’t go there enough, and eventually, if enough people like me stop making the effort, yet another bookshop will disappear forever.
If you would like to review another of the regional winners - or any other independent booksellers you think the world should hear about - please contact

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

New Podcast: Restless Apple Jackson

Our latest podcast is a very funny short story by Lee Williams, read by the author.

On the Isle of Wight in the 19th Century, a parson finds himself inconvenienced when one of his flock declines to stay dead.

Lee Williams is a writer from the Isle of Wight in England. He has had a number of short stories published in print and online (most recently at the Cafe Irreal) and has received hundreds of encouragingly polite rejections from all over the world! His latest project is a spoof fantasy gamebook, 'The Tower of Clavius Boon'.

You can listen to it here:

Don't forget, all our other fabulous podcasts are still available to listen to as well.

And if you like what you hear - don't forget to click the 'Like' button just underneath the 'Play' bar.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Wanted: Short Stories and Poetry

We feature one or two short stories and poems in each issue, either in the print AND online version, or only in the print version. Due to the magazine being free, and our advertising income modest, we offer a token payment of £10 per short story and £4 per poem on previously unpublished works. We do not offer payment on previously published work. Please state on your submission if it has been previously published, when and where.

Word count for short stories should be no more than around 2200 words and poetry no more than 45 lines ish - this is purely because we are tight on space, and not because we can't be arsed reading longer submissions.

Due to the number of submissions we receive (and because it's rather messy and confusing) can you please include on the actual Word document, at the top, your full name and email address. We don't mind what font you use, or colour, or size, or alignment, so long as you don't take the piss - white is very difficult to read. This is so we can contact you back and you don't think we're ignorant when your email gets buried and all we have a file and we've no idea who it's off.

Send your submissions to

Thursday, 16 February 2012

February 2012 issue OUT NOW!!

And what an issue we have for you. You want big name interviews? Not a problem. We have Julie Myerson, Mark Billingham, Geraldine McCaughrean and the Guardian’s literary editor Claire Armitstead, just to get started with.

You want advice? Sorted. There’s our regular Agents’ View feature with Andrew Lownie and this issue’s guest agent, Meg Davis; Tips on submitting non-fiction from Helen Corner of Cornerstones Literary Consultancy; Synopsis Doc with Sheila Bulger and, with the kind permission of Andrew Lownie, a collection of twenty-four top editors tell us exactly what they’ll be looking out for in 2012.

All our regulars stuff is in there too, of course, including Perry and Derek’s usual madness and a plethora of quizzes, crosswords, guessing games and general daftness.

Also, beginning this issue, we’ll be featuring new content exclusively for our print subscribers, just to say thank you. We start with the first in a series of motivational centrefold posters as well as a new short story from Jo Reed.

All in all, I think you’ll agree we’re working far too hard.

How do you get a copy? Easy, if you haven't already, subscribe by clicking the FREE Digital Magazine Subscription option to the right of this page. Enjoy!

Friday, 10 February 2012

Synopsis Doc with Sheila Bugler

Working with Helen Phifer on the synopsis for her novel, Deadly Obsession.

Helen Phifer lives in the South Lakes. She uses her experience as a community support officer in her crime writing. She is married and has five teenage children. Deadly Obsession is her first novel.

Sheila’s comments

As a crime writer, I was delighted to get a chance to work with Helen on the synopsis for her crime novel. Deadly Obsession is Helen’s first novel and two things were immediately obvious when she contacted me. The first was that she’s a natural, talented story-teller. Secondly, like many first-time novelists, she was struggling to get her synopsis right.

Helen sent me one of several versions she’d been working with (see below). It wasn’t bad for a first attempt but it needed work. The narrative – which switches between the past and the present – was confusing and the punctuation needed serious attention.

One problem with synopsis-writing is that it’s too easy to write yourself into a corner, trying harder and harder to produce something that’s easy to read and also manages to summarise every plot element of your complex novel. All within 500 words. This isn’t possible and the sooner you give up trying, the easier you’ll find the whole synopsis-writing process.

A good starting point is to come up with a one- or two-sentence summary which captures the essence of your novel. I suggested this to Helen and she agreed to give it a try. After a few attempts, we agreed on this:

The dead can’t harm you. At least that’s what police officer Annie Graham believes, until she becomes the target of a Ripper-style killer.

Next, I gave Helen the following list of instructions which she had to follow to get to the next stage:
1.         Sit down somewhere quiet (with a glass of wine, if necessary).
2.         Keep the summary at the front of your mind.
3.         Forget all other versions of your synopsis.
4.         Write a one-page (or less) synopsis from scratch.
5.         When it’s finished, save it and send it to me. Do not revise it before sending it.
6.         Do not spend more than 30 minutes on this.

Helen followed my instructions to the letter (although I’m not sure if she stuck to just the one glass of wine) and sent me through the revised synopsis. It was good. Now, we had something to work with. We tweaked it a little more until we both had a final synopsis we were happy with.

I know why I prefer the final version, but what do you think? Send me an email with the subject ‘Synopsis Doc’. I’d love to hear from you.

Helen’s comments

I had written several versions of my synopsis, but I wasn’t really happy with any of them. They were messy and to be honest I was at the point of giving in. I had no idea what I could do to sharpen them up until I found the answer to my prayers, SHEILA. I have learnt so much from her and she has the patience of a saint. It was amazing to see this messy piece of writing begin to take shape. I was aghast when she said I had to forget what I had written previously and start at the beginning although the glasses of wine helped immensely with this task. I have never been one to disobey orders and followed Sheila’s instructions.

It has been a fantastic experience working with another crime writer and I am so thankful I have been given this opportunity. I would recommend any writer struggling with their synopsis to follow Sheila’s list of instructions, it will help them immensely. I am now feeling far more positive about sending my work out to agents and can never thank Sheila enough for all the time and energy she has spent helping me.

Deadly Obsession – Synopsis One

Police officer Annie Graham is in serious trouble recovering from a violent attack by her now estranged husband, she becomes the object of desire for the town’s first serial killer.  A killer who is heavily influenced by “Jack the Ripper”. Henry discovers a trophy room in the cellar of a crumbling Victorian mansion, empty since its owner died in 1945.  He realises this room once belonged to “Jack” and finds the knife once used by him it becomes Henry’s weapon of choice.

 Annie who is temporarily homeless agrees to housesit for her brother.  Off work because of her injuries, the only job she has to worry about is keeping an eye on an empty mansion, nearby.  Inside the mansion Annie discovers a diary written over a hundred years ago by Alice a housemaid who went onto to marry Edward the only son who inherited the house.  It chronicles the abuse she suffered and Alice finally pieces together that her husband is the infamous “Jack” who everyone is talking about.   She has to fight for her life in his trophy room.  She wins and buries him in the cellar, taking the world’s best kept secret to the grave with her.
Henry lures his first victim to see the mansion, killing her in the trophy room.  The police begin to search for the missing teenager.  Bringing Will the Detective Sergeant in charge to the woods, where he meets Annie for the first time.  Will has a reputation as a womaniser but finds himself falling for Annie which is the last thing either of them wants.  Henry begins to stalk Annie.  After seeing her with Will he murders another woman in a fit of rage, this throws the police and Henry into turmoil.  Henry then begins to kill anyone who gets in his way.   Realising time is running out he goes for Annie.  Ambushing her he takes her down into the trophy room.  She has read the diary and knows exactly where she is.  Will makes the connection and dashes to rescue her only to confront Henry and have a massive heart attack, leaving Annie to fight to save them both.  The past is being played out again.  Annie manages to overcome Henry.  Help finally arrives as the mansion goes up in flames.  Annie, Will and the dead girl are all carried from the burning building to waiting paramedics.  Henry stumbles out after them his hair on fire and bleeding he collapses onto the lawn.

Three weeks later Annie buries her husband.  The story ends with Annie laying flowers on the grave of Alice the woman who killed “Jack” and telling her that her secret is safe.

Deadly Obsession – Synopsis Two

Novel: Deadly Obsession
Word Count: 83000 Words
Genre: Crime/Supernatural

The dead can’t harm you. At least that’s what police officer Annie Graham believes, until she becomes the target of a Ripper-style killer.

When ANNIE GRAHAM’S violent husband MIKE finally goes too far, putting her in hospital she flees to the sanctuary of her brother’s house, located in the grounds of a crumbling Victorian mansion.

While she’s there, police begin to search the woods surrounding the mansion for a missing teenager. During the search, Annie meets WILL ASHWORTH a fellow cop with a taste for the ladies and a vulnerable side. Despite Will’s reputation Annie finds herself drawn to him. And the feeling is mutual. Will can’t stop thinking about her.

Local girls are going missing, and it soon becomes clear that Will isn’t the only one with his eye on Annie. When the killer, who lures each victim to the woods, spies Annie, she unknowingly becomes the object of his desire.

As the killer closes in, a regretful Mike skips his bail hostel and comes to find Annie, determined to win her back.

Meanwhile, Annie has become intrigued with the content of an old diary she finds in the school room of the mansion. The diary belonged to housemaid, ALICE HUGHES. Through its pages she discovers clues to the house’s dark past.

The owner, a once charming man called Edward, had a terrifying alter ego. After killing his mother in a jealous rage, he goes to London where he murders at least five prostitutes, gaining infamy as the notorious ‘Jack the Ripper’.

The clues to Edward’s dark past lie in the pages of Alice’s diary. But can Annie figure out the truth before two terrible crime sprees, separated by more than one hundred years, converge in the grimy, blood-splattered cellar next door?

A contemporary, supernatural crime novel set in the South Lakes; this is the first in the Annie Graham series.

Scripts: Stranger than Fiction

by Ola Zaltin

I’m channel surfing again, so what? I’ve already cleaned the apartment, colour-coded my books, re-potted the plants and flossed the cat’s teeth (ok, I don’t have a cat, but the neighbour’s volunteered - if somewhat evasively - the hurdle was to hold him still but as my niece says: if it ain’t working, you simply haven’t used enough gaffer tape.) For short: anything to avoid writing that horrid article for WWJ. “Non-fiction”. I mean, seriously, where DO they get it all from?

So I’m hopping from channel to channel, merrily procrastinating away another afternoon in a very clean apartment with some very happy plants and good-looking bookshelves and someone pounding on my door yipping away for cat and country about the RSPCA in the background. Which is when something catches my eye and I suddenly can’t make my thumb obey my brain and push the button for the next channel. And no, it’s not Playboy channel (not this time, at any rate).

In fact, I don’t know what it is. It’s utterly strange, what I’m watching. There’s black and white footage from some kind of eastern block country in the seventies. Oldsters being interviewed about I think Czechoslovakia back in the day. An English woman in her seventies, who I am starting to understand is looking for her heritage in the Jewish part of Prague that was before WW2. I haven’t watched any channel more than 10 seconds tonight, and now already 20 minutes have passed without me moving a muscle. Okay, truth be told, I just made up the specifics of the documentary. But you know the feeling: you just have to find out what the story is and so you stay on the channel. At least if you’re curious, and I believe most writers are, on one level or other.

In the image-saturated society of today we have become extremely adept at decoding moving images. I dare anyone reading this not being able to tell within five seconds after switching to a new channel what genre it is, whether made for tv or film, what decade it was produced, and round about where we are in the story. Sounds like a lot? Yet you do it without thinking about it 25 times per evening, give or take. If you watch the telly, that is. If not, stop reading. Now.

Genre is easy of course, rom-com, detective stories, comedy, thrillers, historical dramas etc; we all know them. TV-productions generally contains more talking heads, few movie-stars (for natural reasons), whereas films have another aspect-ratio, better lensing and more landscapes and so on. Production decade isn’t a biggie either, as we decode this fast as well, based on things like resolution, black & white or techni-colour or colour, the way the dialogue runs, the fashion and interior decorating of the sets, and more. Even historical dramas from another decade aren’t that hard (e.g. “Kelly’s Heroes”: a film from 1970 set during the second world war has Donald Sutherland as a hippie in a tank...).

Where one has landed in a film when channel surfing can be figured out through some easy tells: if the camera is zooming in slowly, it’s the very opening. If it’s slowly zooming out, the credits are about to start rolling. The beginning means a lot of talking, a lot of exposition, things are moving along at a rather sedate pace. Middle means things just got a lot more complicated and dangerous (spot the film: the Death Star is in fact fully operational, Jules is kidnapped by Davian, Cobb’s projection of Mal sabotages the plan, and so on and so forth ad absurdum). When it starts raining and the guy just lost the gun, the girl plus his nerve and the storm of the century is headed for the coast with 100 feet waves saturated with very miffed cyborg sharks - that’s when you can tell we’re beginning to see the climax and approaching the ending of the story.  And so on, there’s a dozen other simple signs that we decode and  understand more or less subconsciously.
This is part of my theory why documentaries make such fascinating viewing. Being so inundated with Hollywoodese and its formula story telling, well made documentaries has become a breath of fresh air, an anti-dote to the make believe world of been there seen that. Although knowing what’s around the corner can be very comforting in story-telling terms, we also need to be surprised, get to know new worlds, true drama and deep sorrows and real-life triumphs. After all, this is what fiction strives to portray.

So what makes documentaries so watchable? To find out more about this I called up Swedish documentary film maker Fredrik Gertten (whose film ”Bananas!” is now out for distribution in the UK). It came as no surprise that his genre of documentary film-making, doesn’t have a script per se. More of an outline, a question he is curious about. Something worth exploring to see if there is a story behind the headline, the article or the tip-off. What came as more of a revelation was that he said good documentaries were character driven. Fredrik told me that once he has the subject matter researched, he goes looking for the character that can tell the story. Without this person, no documentary. Which blew me away, because this is so very much like fiction script writing. Without a strong protagonist: nada.
It hit me, upon a quick mental run-through of my favourite documentaries, that they all had amazing main characters or groups of characters. Hoop Dreams (1994), Capturing the Friedmans (2003), Dont Look back (1967 - easy: the main character is Bob Dylan) and The War Room (1993) are ones that immediately leap to mind. They all have amazing stories, strong characters and very involving story-lines.

Then there’s Grey Gardens (1975) possibly my favourite documentary of all time. It concerns the mother and daughter relationship of Big Edie and little Edie Bouvier and their solitary and impoverished, half crazed and vividly alive existence in the eponymous Grey Gardens, a derelict mansion in the posh East Hamptons. The fact that little Edie was first cousin to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis made quite the headlines when the film was first screened.

I won’t even try to describe the film, it has to be seen. I will never forget mother and daughter Bouvier (how can you, when the main character little Edie every other night goes up to the attic with a bag of cat-food to spread out for the visiting badger?). It’s one of those things, if you wrote it as fiction and showed it to someone they’d immediately say it was completely outlandish and wholly unbelievable. Man, you just couldn’t make it up. Larger than life and incredibly heart-felt. Stranger than fiction. 

Whose Story Is This?

Looking at viewpoint with Sarah Bower

Stories are precious possessions. We fight hard for them. We all know the indignation of another person cutting in to give their version of a story we are telling; when they do this, they trespass on our souls.
Fictional characters are no different. Every one of them is clamouring to tell his or her story, battling it out in the mind of the writer to be given the privilege of a viewpoint. When the novelist performs the work of characterisation thoroughly and properly, every character she imagines, however minor a role they have to play, will be fully rounded, with a deep backstory, a rich hinterland that may never appear in the finished book but is always there between the lines, the life-giving secret shared between author and character. Every one of these characters will therefore be pressing you for a voice; every one has a story to tell.

The way in which you manage these competing claims will, perhaps, determine the course of your novel more than any other single thing. It affects, obviously, the development of and interplay between characters, the unfolding of your plot, what readers know, are left guessing, are lied to about, and the voice of the novel – the forms of words, the images, the cadences of its storytelling.

So how do you decide which of your characters will be given a point of view, which of them is going to work hardest alongside you to bring the novel to life? Kazuo Ishiguro, it is said, actually goes through a process of ‘interviewing’ characters to determine which of them is best suited for the job!

There is no single right way to arrive at a decision. As with most aspects of creativity, it is perhaps best to begin with your intuition. Whose story does it feel like? Which character’s voice is most often in your head when you are thinking about and planning your novel? Even for writers whose ideas come to them plot first, as a series of dramatic situations or confrontations, character must follow close on the heels of the plot because, without characters, you have no-one to enact the plot. So, there is much to be said for beginning by listening to the voices in your head and focusing on those which speak loudest.

As with every aspect of constructing a novel, however, the intuitive work must be given form and reinforced by reasoning based on technical understanding. You must understand what narrative viewpoint is and how to deploy it if the voices of your viewpoint characters are to be authentic and intelligible to readers. Narrative viewpoint refers to the point (or points) of view through which the novelist tells her story. It determines through whose eyes (and other senses, of course) the reader perceives the action and whose voices will be given a privileged hearing. This may, and most likely will, also suggest whose lies the author would like readers to believe.

I began this discussion by talking about the viewpoints of characters inside the novel because this is the commonest mode of narration in contemporary mainstream fiction. The convention is that readers follow certain characters, but the characters are unaware of the readers’ presence. They act out the part of their lives examined in the novel as if they are unaware of their status as fictional constructs in an artificial, imagined world.

This was not, however, always the case. The convention of the early modern novel was for the author to make his role in the story explicit. Thackeray, for example, subtitles Vanity Fair ‘a novel without a hero’; by imposing his own acute and merciless vision between his characters and his readers, he makes sure the latter see the former warts and all; he gives them no voice with which to big themselves up to readers. Throughout the novel, the reader is aware of the author himself mediating the text and manipulating the characters; this is more like puppetry than CGI. This is an authorial viewpoint, producing a novel which is very much about the author telling us a story and drawing the moral he intends.

A form also popular at the same period, and which has remained so in contemporary fiction, is the fake memoir. Robinson Crusoe is an example of this, as is William Boyd’s Any Human Heart. These are novels which are presented as the truth – in Boyd’s case as a diary, in Defoe’s as travelogue-cum-adventure, but because their narrators are fictional, ergo the stories they tell are also fiction. Crusoe and Logan Mountstuart are what we call virtual authors, who stand between the ‘real’ author and the rest of the characters in the novel, who have no viewpoint. This kind of novel is almost always narrated, for obvious reasons, in a close first person voice. The entire action is filtered through the virtual author and spun according to his agenda. So, although both the novels I have given as examples contain elements of historical fact, the reader cannot necessarily trust it because it is shown through the eyes of a self-promoting, and therefore unreliable, narrator.

As I have said, however, the commonest mode of narration in mainstream fiction is that which uses the viewpoints of one or more principal characters. Clearly, viewpoint characters must be major players in your story, otherwise their knowledge of what is going on will be too little for them to contribute to readers’ understanding. Principal characters are also the ones most likely to engage readers emotions and therefore the ones whose voices readers will most want to hear. If you choose multiple viewpoints, try to avoid using too many as this can become confusing. As a rough rule of thumb, a maximum of six different viewpoints is probably the most it is wise to use in a novel of average length. When using multiple viewpoints, it is also a good idea to try to establish some pattern in the way you deploy them, as this is another way of helping readers navigate your text. You could, for example, always use them in the same order, associate certain voices with certain locations, or give them a chronological relationship so that each narrates aspects of the story from fixed, but different, points in its chronology. This latter can be either cyclical or linear, where the story is handed on from one to the next like a baton in a relay.

Many beginning novelists start out believing multiple viewpoints offer the best way of telling their story because they worry about the handling of information. If I only have a single viewpoint, how can I tell the reader things that character doesn’t know? It is, of course, a valid question, but what I ask my students is this: how do you find your way through life? How do you assimilate knowledge or an understanding of other people? The fact of the matter is, the single, close viewpoint is actually the easiest to do because it is the most like life. All of us go through our lives with a single viewpoint. We have no idea what is going on in other people’s heads other than what we can intuit from observing them. Our readers are the same so, if your single viewpoint character tells them her boyfriend says he’s going fishing but can’t look her in the eye and clears his throat a lot, they will know he’s lying and is probably off for a hot weekend with the femme fatale.

Viewpoint characters who have limited information, or choose to lie about what they do know, are unreliable. The unreliable narrator is one of the key tools at the disposal of the novelist who chooses to use character viewpoints or a virtual author figure. Unreliable narrators do not tell the truth, either because they do not know it due to their limited viewpoint or because they do not wish to share it with readers. If, for example, you are writing a murder mystery and choose to narrate it from the viewpoint of the murderer, the murderer may not want to give himself away so you and he will both have a vested interest in keeping his action quiet until investigation forces it into the open. Of course, your murderer may be dying to confess, in which case you have a novel which uses a reverse chronology (like Gabriel Garcia Marques’ Chronicle of a Death Foretold, even though the author classifies this book as journalism rather than fiction). We know who the victim is and who killed him, and his motives are the mystery the book explores.

I have referred already to the close viewpoint. Having decided on your viewpoint characters, you must also decide how close you want to bring readers to them. Do you want readers to participate in the fictional world from right inside the heads of the viewpoint characters, giving them a visceral experience of those characters’ physical feelings as well as their thoughts and emotions, or do you prefer to keep your distance? The former has obvious advantages in the immediacy with which it can engage readers and bring the fictional world to life. The latter, on the other hand, can be a useful hybridisation of character and narrator/author viewpoint. The view of the fictional world is confined to a limited cast of characters, but they still keep their innermost feelings secret. We might see, for example, that Jane is wearing new Louboutin shoes, but we will not necessarily be aware that she has blisters as a result. Not only can this help with the management of information, but also helps the author exercise control over the atmosphere of the novel. In Never Let Me Go, for example, Ishiguro always maintains a distance between his characters and the reader, and this contributes to the detached, somewhat glacial atmosphere of the novel, an atmosphere which is needed to reinforce its theme.

Finally, keep in mind that you can mix and match different degrees of closeness, much as the cinematographer zooms in and out from wide angle or cherrypicker to close up. There may be times when it suits you to keep readers and characters apart and times when you want to make the reader feel at one with a character, slower moving passages where you want a wide angle, descriptive approach contrasted with tense sequences in which you want us to feel the protagonist’s racing heart.

I have to end with an apology. Writers must, of course, read widely, but the more they learn about their craft, the more critical they become as readers. Once you start reading for viewpoint, which is virtually unnoticeable unless done badly, your days of reading for enjoyment are numbered! Sorry.

Submitting Non-Fiction

by Helen Corner

Helen Corner, founder of the Cornerstones literary consultancy, gives some guidance on how to ensure your non-fiction proposal lands on the agent’s desk and not in the slush pile. 

 My job is to help authors through the redrafting and submitting stage; talent and inspiration cannot, as we know, be taught, but I strongly believe that a writer can be shown how to craft their skills and to approach the publishing arena in a confident way.

Once you’ve finished your non-fiction proposal, it’s tempting to throw it into the publishing ether to see if someone will recognise your talent and commission your work. However, agents and publishers are a business and if something isn’t working – perhaps your writing is unformed, or your submission is incomplete or unclear – then it is likely to be rejected and they almost certainly won’t have time to give you feedback or tell you why. Agents and publishers often talk of metre high piles of unsolicited material – manuscripts (mss) sent in direct by authors - and their time is already filled with servicing their existing authors and taking on new clients, so your submission has to shine above the rest. The key to this is preparation and perfection.

Part of what we do at Cornerstones is passing through first-time authors to agents, and each agent has different quirks and preferred ways of being approached. You’ll only know who likes what by carrying out your own research and this sense of care and targetting should shine through in your submission. So, draw up a list of three to four agents and profile them so that you target them in a personalised way. Look at their website, see exactly how they like work to be submitted; Google them to see if they’ve written any articles or have been written about in the trade press. When you introduce yourself in your cover letter, you want the agent to notice you and take you seriously. How professional it would sound if you mentioned, for instance, that you have read an interview on them in a writing magazine, and that you thought they might like to consider your non-fiction idea because they were currently looking for this kind of subject.

You’re now ready to prepare your submission. You can either target one agent at a time – but be prepared for one month or so for a response, or you can target a couple at a time. If you do submit to more than one agent it’s important to say this in your letter (you don’t need to say who you’ve submitted to but you do need to be transparent with your approach) and tell them that you’ll let them know of any developments – this immediately signals professionalism in your approach because you’re aware of etiquette. By contrast, an agent will find it irritating if they think it’s an exclusive submission and then find out that another agent has already shown interest. I would advise against sending out your submission to more than three or four agents at one time, as it suggests a lack of conviction both in your work and in the agent you’re targeting.

For non-fiction, usually all that is required is a proposal and an agent can make a swift decision based on this. Every agent works differently - some just require a cover letter introducing you, your idea and a market analysis of why your idea would appeal and then some sample chapters. Others may request a synopsis or an introduction (why you, why the subject), and perhaps a contents list which will allow the agent to see the areas you intend to cover, along with sample chapter(s). For non-fiction the most important thing is why you’re qualified to write it. You can either write as an authority on a subject - for instance, if you’ve written about a particular period in history you should have some form of academic or professional credential to back this up; or, you can write from personal experience – you might have grown up in Africa and wish to write about how apartheid affected you. Either approach will carry weight, as long as the subject itself is inherently fresh and interesting; agents see a lot of memoirs and very few are published, so to succeed in this sub-genre you must be telling an outstanding story.

The agent will probably glance at your cover letter and then go straight to your writing, and their decision whether to take you on will be 99.9% down to you and the concept - are you high profile or ‘interesting’, and is this high concept, unusual and likely to sell – backed up by the quality of your style and delivery. Every second that the agent remains with your work counts, and you don’t want to give them any excuse to turn it down. The real key to a professional submission, irrespective of genre, is to ensure that your writing is as strong as you can make it. Even if you’ve redrafted several times and you’re convinced you can’t do any more revision, have one last read – perhaps read it aloud – and get someone whose opinion you trust to read it as well.

Check your presentation: is it a standard type and font (Times Roman, 12 point); are your chapters numbered and double-spaced; does each chapter begin with the narrative left justified and each subsequent paragraph indented? Are all your contact details, and the agent’s, correct (have you called the agency to double-check the agent’s name and that you have the right address)? If you would like your material returned don’t forget the stamped addressed envelope, with stamps on it, and not the white sticker that the post office will try to give you, as this goes immediately out of date.

And finally… remember that as a writer, your primary function is to be creative and original, so don’t lose sight of what you love to do, and persevere. I wish you all the best in your professional submission, and I hope to see your book on the shelves on day.

With a background in publishing, Helen is the founder of Cornerstones, and Kids’ Corner - a leading literary consultancy. ‘Rough diamonds’ in the slush pile inspired her to set up Cornerstones, to give authors feedback on what works in their MS, what doesn’t, and what they  can do about it. She now heads a 60-strong team of readers, all professional authors or editors, who share her vision of helping writers. Cornerstones scout for agents and are known for launching new writers. Based on their workshops, Hodder commissioned Helen Corner and Lee Weatherly to write ‘Write a Blockbuster and Get it Published’.

If you would like to participate in the Cornerstones Opening Page Mini Masterclass, send your opening page to with the subject ‘Cornerstones Masterclass’.

Hello, I’m Here to Help

Getting Started in Non-Fiction

 by Dan Holloway

I wanted to write something marketing- and/or social media-related in this issue for all the non-fiction writers out there. But for several weeks now I’ve been having one of those authenticity crises. You know the kind. Where you want to say something but you feel anything you say will be a fraud. I mean, I’m a novelist. And when I’m not writing novels, I write poetry. Or short stories. I’m not a non-fiction writer. Only...

Well, I had a think. What was the last thing I had published? Um, that would be the review I did for The Guardian website. And the first thing? Oh yes, that travel piece I wrote for The Observer. And the biggest audience I’ve ever had (or ever will I dare say)? That would be the 140,000 circulation for the booklet on debt and mental health I worked on. And the biggest paycheque for a piece of writing? Ah yes, the mental health article I wrote a couple of years ago. Oh, and I guess there’s that column I write for a really rather fabulous writing magazine.

So maybe I’m not such a fraud after all. Maybe I’m actually more of a non-fiction writer than a fiction writer. I’ve certainly written more non-fiction pieces in more respectable places than I have fiction. Or poetry.
So why do I still feel a bit of a fraud? I think it has to do with how I “got the gig” for my various non-fiction pieces. I wrote a blog post more than two years ago called “Chutzpah, Cheekiness, and Chance” which I opened with the lines, “I wasn’t expecting to write something about, essentially, online journalism, and how to break into the field. It’s something I know very little about.” I think I still feel the same, and if someone pushed me into a corner at a party and demanded I unburden my wisdom to them, I think I’d still quote those three words.

But chewing a little more of this particular cud, maybe there’s actually more than a little method behind those three little words. What you actually need is “the right kind” of chutzpah, “the right kind” of cheekiness, and “the right kind” of chance. And in that “right kind” there’s a surprising lot you can learn.


I want to take this little sucker first, because it, and its stepbrother, Luck, are so frequently misquoted. The thing about luck, of course, is that there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s what makes it luck. A lot of people who say you make your own luck have led charmed lives or are simply not particularly empathic. The rest actually mean, “Make sure you put yourself in a position to make the most of your chances.”

And putting yourself in a position to make the most of chances that come along is something you most definitely can do something about. It was chance that first got me in touch with the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP), with whom I’ve gone on to do lots of very rewarding work on debt and mental health, and through whom I’ve met many other people and organisations I’ve worked with. I was in the middle of writing a travelogue, and had started a blog to go with it that combined travel exploits with mental health and financial troubles (my wife and I had coinciding “ups” during our bipolar cycle, and ended up travelling to 23 countries in a single year on budget airlines). One of the researchers at the RCP was looking for people with mental health and debt problems. And Google did the matchmaking.

For me it really was luck. But the principle I learned has stayed with me. If someone’s looking for the thing you can do, make sure you’re the person they find. That’s the real knack to what people call platform-building. Whether it’s Google or a friend, if someone with stuff that needs writing asks “Who can write this for me?” is your name the one that’ll come up?

It’s worthwhile remembering that “Google or a friend” are quite different things though, and that people may go to either. For me, what comes first is a blog that has regular posts about the things I want to be asked to write about by others, and which you have carefully tagged and filled with the words that people will search for. Aside from being Google-friendly, this is your calling card.

There are many ways to make sure people know about you, but ultimately they will all point back to your blog (when someone asks, ”Can I see an example?” or some such, it is there you should be able to point them), hence the priority of starting by blogging and building out from there . But once you have that base, the next step is to research the places where other people talking about the things you are talking about hang out. If these are online places, you can go and interact on forums and blogs. I’m never a fan of the “look at me and this is my fabulous blog” approach. It is far better to offer help and insights, and link back to your blog subtly. If you are regularly helpful, witty, and wise (and if we’re not then you probably don’t deserve that gig in the first place), it won’t take long to get a reputation.  And then you’ll be the name on the tip of real people’s tongues as well as Google’s.

“Once You’re In”

There are lots of helpful tips about getting noticed, and making sure people come to you for the things you can do best. But there is one golden rule to transcend them all like some bad Tolkien rhyme:
Once you get your break, don’t blow it.

Simple, really, but we spend so long thinking about how to get that all important foot in the door that it’s all too easy to get it caught and end up with nothing more than an almighty blood blister. The thing is, once you do have a piece of work out there, that’s what people will be looking at, regardless of what’s on your blog or anywhere else. So make it an absolute zinger, because however hard it is to get a first chance, a second chance is ten times harder to get. But if the first piece you do is great, more offers will start to come very quickly.

The other thing about chance is that you can tune yourself to be aware of it. Look out for stories about your area of interest in the news. Have a press contact sheet ready to go that you can tweak ever so slightly to make it relevant to this particular story, then fire it off straightaway. Make sure you follow all the organisations and publications that might be interested on twitter, and tweet them offering a story the moment the news breaks (and make sure you regularly search key words on twitter so you know when the news breaks). Then, two minutes after the news breaks (because minute one was firing out that contact sheet and those tweets), write a short, crisp, informative blog post about the story with a very heavy angle, and post links to it on twitter. I had a huge spike in interest and contact when I managed to post an article about Stacey Slater being revealed as Archie’s killer on EastEnders – I almost burned my fingers getting a post up within 20 minutes lambasting the BBC for undoing all their good work on sensitively creating awareness of bipolar disorder through Stacey’s storyline, and by getting in first, my article was the one that everyone re-tweeted on the subject.

Cheekiness and Chutzpah

I often joke that 90% of the things I end up doing happen because I stuck my hand up at an (in?)opportune moment. Only it’s not really a joke. Unless you’re interested in the paints used on 1986 computer keyboards, then the chances are there are organisations and magazines and events going on around you all the time that relate to your interest (with apologies to anyone interested in 1986 keyboard paint – there may well be conferences held on a weekly basis, and I’m sure there’s more than a passing forensic interest). Go along as often as you can. And offer to do things. That’s what I mean by sticking your hand up. Could you write an article for the UK Stapler Appreciation Society? Why not go along to one of their events, join in the fun, and then offer to write something. Or go along to a local history group and volunteer to organise a day trip to London Stapler Museum for them?

The problem is this all sounds a lot like cold calling. A lot like those annoying people on twitter who are always spamming agents saying “look at my fabulous book!” Have you ever noticed that there are two kinds of people, and they seem to ask the same things and say the same things, but one group’s treated like needy pariahs whilst the others are welcomed with open arms? That’s where cheekiness and chutzpah come into their own. Always be helpful, always be kind, always be warm and witty, and always, when you’re asking something, do it with both conviction and your tongue firmly in your cheek. Even online, people can spot someone who’s self-serving as opposed to someone who’s genuine.

And remember, the very best question you can ask, and one you should ask as often as you can: Can I help? You’d be amazed how many doors it will open. As well as being immensely rewarding in its own right.

To Summarise:

Make yourself easy to find through Google by having a regularly updated blog filled with all the words people are likely to be looking for.
Make yours the name everyone knows by offering interesting, helpful comments on blogs and forums.
Make sure you have an interesting take on things – make people want to get your opinion.
Once you get your foot in the door, make it count!
Look inside, find “your” voice (using twitter a lot, and letting yourself emerge, is a great way to do this), and turn up the volume
When an opportunity comes along, ask!

Be courteous to everyone; be helpful to everyone; act like you belong; never be arrogant; don’t take yourself too seriously.