Tag Archives: non-fiction

“Bad Santas…” Advent Calendar Day 24 – Thomas Nast

 by Thomas Nast


Coca-Cola’s billboards might have spread the image we have for Santa Clays today but the person usually credited with creating it was Thomas Nast, the cartoonist at the influential Harper’s Weekly magazine in New York in the mid-late 19th Century.. Nast’s father was a Protestant from the traditionally Catholic German state of Bavaria who had fled to New York for political reasons when the boy was six years old. Nast’s drawings embodied both the way that old Catholic traditions of St Nicholas were being rapidly redesigned through Protestant eyes and the way that traditions stemming from fourteenth-century Europe were reborn for the society of nineteenth-century America.

Nast’s first image of the character that came to be embraced as Santa Claus appeared on the front cover of Harper’s Weekly in December 1862. It was the height of the Civil War and a low point for the North, who had suffered heavy losses at the Battle of Fredericksburg only a few weeks before Christmas. Nast was a fervent supporter of the war and the battle against slavery but drew an image to reflect his sadness at the separation and loss that the war caused in everyday families. Nast, who had spent time in England, may have been influenced by the way that Father Christmas had developed as an expression of sadness for lost Christmas traditions and hope for a better future. He drew a powerful, striking image of despair as a wife sits praying at her window whilst her children lie in bed. Many miles away sits a weary, ageing solider. He has the beard and rotund gait that was already familiar in the pictures of the Christmas Men and would soon be known around the world as Santa Claus. But, far from the joyful personification of Christmas, he slumps sadly with a letter in his hand. Even 150 years later, it is a moving and heartbreaking image of longing, hope and loss.

Minolta DSC

A year later, Nast drew the same figure again, this time clearly identifying him as Santa Claus. He dresses in a Unionist flag and hands out presents to soldiers who are separated from their families.


After that, Nast continued to draw Santa for the next thirty years. Once the war was won he seemed to cheer up considerably and he gradually became the man we know and love today. Nast’s German roots meant that he was aware of European folk mythology and his residence in New York meant that he was also aware of the Clement Clarke Moore poem. Nast’s drawings were the point where European traditions and Irving’s and Moore’s writings came together to create something new.

St Nicholas was no longer an austere saint but a jolly toymaker. His assistants were no longer angry fearsome devils but friendly elves. He did not judge children but simply stored their hopes and wishes in a giant ledger. He liked food being left out for him but he was not going to punish anyone who failed to leave him an offering. Nast was also the first person to encourage children to write to Santa and to locate Santa Claus’s workshop at the North Pole. Nast’s grandson Thomas Nast St Hill speculates that the reason for this was the combination of a neutral location, so that Santa could not be appropriated as a political figure by any particular country, and the fact that the North Pole made it easy for Santa Claus to access both the United States and Europe – even at this time Santa’s status as a global gift-bringer was beginning to develop.

Nast helped put European folklore back into the heart of Santa Claus, albeit in a much nicer and more child-friendly form than it had ever appeared before. In doing so, he helped ease the way for Santa to supersede the same myths he had been inspired by. It was through his drawings that Santa Claus became generally accepted as wearing red.



“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters” by Paul Hawkins is available now from Simon & Schuster.  The images above are all by Thomas Nast.



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“Bad Santas…” Advent Calendar: Day 13 – Lussinatta

In Norway and Sweden 13 December is St Lucia’s Day. St Lucia is represented as a beautiful young woman and the day is marked by a procession. A local girl is selected to play the saint. She dresses in white with a red sash and wears a crown of candles on her head. She will parade through the town followed by a series of similarly white-clad girls, each clutching one candle and singing songs dedicated to the saint.

Although St Lucia (or St Lucy) is indeed a historical saint, this is actually a relatively recent celebration which began in Sweden in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. But Norway actually celebrated a Lucia (or Lussi) centuries earlier, albeit in a very different form. For the night before 13 December was the Lussinatta or Lucy Night. This was the night when evil spirits and demons rose up to wander the Earth.

In these wanderings, Lussi was a hideously evil she-demon with magical powers. She was said to ride through the skies on a broomstick accompanied by demons, evil spirits and trolls, spreading mayhem and chaos wherever she went. Children needed to be good and the adults needed to ward off evil by protecting their homes with the sign of the cross. Otherwise Lussi would make her move – destroying property, crops or livestock, and kidnapping or killing misbehaving children.

“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters” by Paul Hawkins is available now and published by Simon & Schuster.  I’m not really sure where the picture comes from and feel slightly guilty about purloining it but it seemed rather good for what I wanted…

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“Bad Santas…” Advent Calendar Day 10: The Christkind


The Christkind (or Christ Child) was an impressively literal creation. Quite simply, it was the baby Jesus, freshly out of his manger and clad in white, who went round Germany and other Lutheran territories delivering gifts to children. The idea was that this was a spiritual figure who would teach children the true meaning of Christmas.

There were several problems with this.

The first one was a literal one. The baby Jesus was born on Christmas Day. And delivered the presents on Christmas Eve. This meant that somehow or other, the baby had to either pop out of Mary’s womb pre-birth for a quick bit of gift-giving or somehow, post-birth, travel back in time twenty-four hours and then travel round the world handing out gifts. Before being able to eat or speak. Even for a miracle-worker it made very little sense.

Secondly, the whole thing was a bit hard to visualise. How on earth does a baby deliver gifts? Between the inability to walk and the inability to carry things, it seemed doomed from the off.

Thirdly, the whole appeal – and admittedly terror – of St Nicholas was that he burst into the room in full view of everyone and made a public show of bringing the gifts. Obviously this required an adult family member or neighbour to play St Nicholas and visit children. Clearly the same could not happen for the Christkind. An adult turning up dressed as a baby would have been unconvincing and strangely unfestive. So the tradition had to be rewritten so that the Christkind appeared in the dead of night whilst all children were asleep and delivered the presents incognito.

Fourthly, the Lutherans made a fundamental miscalculation. Moving the present-giving from 6 December to Christmas Day might help increase the significance of Christmas Day but it also increased the significance of giving presents on Christmas Day. Ultimately Luther’s plan to popularise giving gifts at Christmas instead of other times served to, well, popularise giving gifts at Christmas. The Lutherans basically managed to accidentally invent the very focus on the material side of Christmas that they were trying to destroy!

Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters by Paul Hawkins is available now from Simon & Schuster.  The image at the top of the page is available under a Creative Commons license. 

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“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters” lecture tour.

In December I will be doing a series of lectures in libraries around London to talk about “Bad Santas…”.  Each lecture will be about 45 minutes long and will essentially be a  (hopefully!) amusing and engaging history of how violent, bloody European folk tales of monsters that stalked the winter nights became santised and universalised in the form of Father Christmas.

The dates booked so far are here.   More dates may yet be confirmed.

Friday 6th December – 7pm, Camberwell Library, 17-21 Camberwell Church St, London SE5 8TR

Saturday 7th December – 2pm, Muswell Hill Library, Queens Avenue,
Muswell Hill, 
London, N10 3PE

Monday 9th December – 6:30pm, Maida Vale Library, Sutherland Avenue, London, W9 2QT

Tuesday 10th December – 6pm, Marylebone Library, 109-117 Marylebone Road, London, NW1 5PS

Thursday 12th December – 7pm Canada Water Library, 21 Surrey Quays Rd, London SE16 7AR

Saturday 14th December – afternoon but time tbc, Stroud Green & Harringay Library, Quernmore Road, London, N4 4QR

Monday 16th December – 6.30pm, John Harvard Library, 211 Borough High St, London SE1 1JA

If you’d like to come along then contact the libraries for admission detail.

I’ll also be guesting at the Comedy Club For Kids’ Santa Claus Science Experiment on the 15th and 22nd of December at the Bloomsbury Theatre (tickets available at the above link).  The show also features Darren Hayman, Robin Ince, Tiernan Douieb, Nick Doody and a host of other performers.  Tickets are available from the link above.

If you’d like to contact me about a lecture at an event near you, contact me on paulalexanderhawkins <at> gmail.com

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Diary of a First-Time Author #10 – How To To Write a Book

So you’ve sold your proposal, you’ve got the first part of your advance and now you actually need to write a book.  Someone’s actually given you money to be a writer and they’re expecting you to deliver.  It’s utterly, utterly brilliant and utterly, utterly, utterly terrifying.


With Bad Santas, I had the added pressure of the fact it was a Christmas release and so, having met the publisher and received the offer in February and signed the contract at the beginning of April, the book had to be ready by the end of May.  Which was a bit intense.  Luckily I started writing from the February of else it probably would have been impossible!


So how do you do it?


  1. Plan how much you need to write


Work out the exact number of words you need to write and when your deadline is.  Divide it by the number of weeks and then by the number of days you intend to work.  You then have your target number of words per day.


  1. Plan for Contingency


Now ignore this figure.  Instead work out the exact number of words you need to write to get the book finished four weeks before the deadline.  Aim for that target instead.  Then you’ve got a whole month to cover you for illness, parts of the book taking longer than you anticipate, rewriting days and things like that.  Also add another 15, 000 words to your word total to cover all the things you write that either ultimately don’t fit in with the book or aren’t good enough to use.  Do the maths again.  Now you’ve got your real target number of words per day.  Try not to panic when you look at it.


  1. Plan what you’re writing


If you got the pitching document I discussed in article #3 right then it will now be your best friend.  If not you really need to structure out each chapter and make sure you have a blueprint of exactly where you’re going – it’ll save you a lot of wasted time and energy as you go through the book


  1. Work out your writing routine


Be realistic about how much time you have, especially if you’re not able to take time off work to be a writer.  I was lucky enough to take a break to write the book but I’m now sat on the top deck of a bus typing into my laptop as I take the 43 from Muswell Hill to London Bridge on my way into work.  This gives me an hour to an hour and a half’s writing time per day.  It’s not ideal but, as I’m not writing any specific project at the moment, it could be far worse.


Also, think about the way that you work and try to work with that, rather than against it.  For example, I’m a procrastinator who gets occasional bursts of focus – typically first thing in the morning, shortly before lunch and then for a couple of hours in the late afternoon and early evening.  When I was writing Bad Santas, I tried to structure myself around that.  On an ideal day I’d get up about 7 or 8 o’clock, do an hour to an hour and half of work (usually revisions and re-writes from the previous day), then take a shower, a short bus-ride to somewhere scenic and from there take an hour and half long walk to the British library (walking really helps me both relax and to think about what I’m doing).  I’d then do about an hour’s work before breaking for lunch, spend most of the afternoon recovering from the lunch break and then do a concentrated burst of writing between 4pm and 7pm before going home.


Obviously I’m not suggesting that that’s the best way to write but it is the best way to write for me.  As far as is reasonable around your life commitments, it’s a good idea to think about what works for you and stick to it – there’s no point in chastising yourself but not being sat in your writing chair at 9am if you find it easier to write in the night-time.


  1. Be disciplined


At the same time, it’s really important to be disciplined.  Whilst writing is a million times better than a real job, you still get days where you really don’t want to get out of bed, sections of the book you dread writing and times when you lack all motivation and just want to pack up and go home (unless you’re working from home, in which case you want to pack up and go out somewhere instead!)   And, if you’re writing a 60, 000 word book, there’ll be times when you find yourself utterly bogged down in the middle somewhere, unable to see the end and feeling like you can’t possibly process, let alone write down, everything you need to say.  But ultimately, if you’re going to finish the book, you have to keep going.


Whilst writing the book I worked out that I could write approximately 2, 000 ‘useful’ words a day.  Any less and I was being unproductive, any more and the quality really tailed off.  So I set that as a target made sure I ended even the ‘bad’ days with 2000 more words on the page.  Obviously quite a lot of those words needed rewriting later but I find re-writing much easier than writing.  Once you’ve got something down, you can then work out how to get it right…


  1. Make sure you do something tanigble, even if it’s not what you originally planned.


Nonetheless there will be days where you really find you absolutely cannot face doing the part of the book that you were ‘supposed’ to be doing that day.  If you really can’t discipline yourself to do it then the simple solution is to do something else instead.  Revise and rewrite previous chapters or leap forward and write another part of the book which sounds a bit more interesting.  But try to always go to bed feeling you can see what you’ve achieved.


  1. Re-write continually.


You’re first draft of anything will not be your best piece of work and you should always go through and see what you can do better.  The only exception to that is when you really want to give the impression that it’s just you’re unfettered thoughts spilling out onto the page.  Which is my excuse for ignoring my own advice on these articles.  But otherwise re-writing is key.


  1. Proofread.  Or better still, get someone else to do it.


I am the world’s worst proofreader – as anyone who has read this will probably attest.  My grammar and spelling are fine but I tend to type really quickly and think even quicker, as a result of which what I type tends to be the train of the inner monologue in my head.  This can easily end up like one of those teletext subtitles pages where things are written down phonetically at speed and ludicrous spelling mistakes ensue.  Unfortunately I also read really quickly and, as a result, tend to see what I think is on the page and fail to pick up my own mistakes.


Ultimately the publisher will have their own proofreader but it looks awful if you hand in something riddled with errors and I dimly recall that there are psychological studies that show that the more spelling and grammar mistakes there are in a piece of writing, the less plausible people find the argument.  So it does matter that you get it right before submitting it.


Bear in mind this is really a case of “do what I say and not what I do” here and an area where I’m incredibly sloppy – luckily my parents and friends helped proofread the book for me but these articles are far more exposed and I’m sure my laziness in this respect has come clear several times already!



Ultimately writing is hard work (or at least it can be) and the key to finishing a book successfully is sticking with it even when you utterly hate doing it.  There are thousands – perhaps even millions – of people who’ve half-written books that they’ll never finish.  Becoming one of the few that actually finish things is a crucial part of succeeding as a writer.

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Diary of a First-Time Author #9 – The Anatomy of a Publishing Contract

Of course, the aim of all I’ve discussed so far, is to end up with a publishing contract.  And if and when you get one it’s a nice experience, albeit a very confusing one.  So what do contracts contain?


Before I start discussing the contract, I want to make something clear.  I am not an expert in understand publishing contracts.  If you aren’t either, then make sure you get someone who does able to advise and negotiate for you.  Hopefully this’ll be an agent but, if not, then it may be time to find a lawyer.  But, in any case, make sure you get good advice on what you’re signing up to.


Bear in mind too that, if you do have an agent, you might find that a lot of the contract negotiation process passes you by as the agent discusses terms with the publishers and you’re left out of the loop somewhat.  You’ll know early on what sort of advance you’re being offered but you might not hear much else until the contract’s agreed – potentially several weeks later.  You will need to take your own view and how much you want to chase things and find out what’s going on.  Personally I decided to trust that my agent knew what he was doing and let him get on with it and tell me when things were agreed but I’m sure several other people might want to be more hands-on – as might I in the future if I understand the process better!  But patience is useful here.


Every contract is going to be a little different but I’ll try to answer some of the basic questions from a writer’s perspective in Q and A form.


a)   What’s an advance?


An advance is an amount of money the publisher offers you to secure the book.  It’s called an advance as publishers treat it as part of your future royalties (i.e. the money you get paid for book sales).  So, if you get an advance of, say, £10, 000, the publisher won’t pay you any more money for sales until you’re owed more than £10l 000.


With a non-fiction book, the advance usually comes in three stages.  You get part of it on signing, a part of it when you submit the manuscript and part of it when the book gets published.


Bear in mind that, particularly in big publishing companies, the advance needs to be processed and signed off by a few different departments at each stage – so it can take a couple of weeks after each of these milestones for the money to land in your account – it’s best not to plan your finances on the basis that you’ll get the money the second the contract gets signed!


Also remember that your advance is treated as a form of income – i.e. you will need to register as self-employed and pay tax on it.  Forgetting that could land you with a big bill later!


b)   So will there be an advance?


I certainly hope so!  If there’s a bidding war then there’ll definitely be an advance and it could get rather high.  If not, there’ll be a slightly more modest amount of money.  For Bad Santas I received roughly the equivalent of a few months’ salary for the job I had at the time – and, as that job was not very secure, I did in fact quit and very much treat the advance like a salary that enabled me to go to work as a writer every day.


If you’re not being offered an advance, then it raises questions about the resources the publisher has available and how confident they feel about your book.  Whether you should proceed probably depends on whether you think you can get interest elsewhere and how desperate you are to be published.  If you’re going to write the book anyway then it won’t do any harm.  If you’re trying to write it to make a living you should maybe consider pitching other ideas.  Never ever pay money to be published.  If someone’s asking you to do that, they’re either running a scam or a pretty crummy business but, either way, it’s unlikely they’ll have the money or the will to promote your work.



  c)   How much do I get paid per book?


A % of the recommended retail price  This might be graded in stages – so 10% for the first x copies, 12.5% for the next x copies and so forth.


d)   What happens if I don’t finish the book, or the book doesn’t get published?


If you don’t complete the book then you’ll probably have to pay back the initial advance that the publisher paid you.  The second payment is subject to submitting the book along the lines of the proposal you made to the publisher.  As long as you submit something that follows the theme, argument and chapter structure then, once you’ve submitted that, your first part of the advance is safe and you get the second par of the advance too.  If the book doesn’t get published then you keep the first two parts of the advance but won’t get the third part.  Which is a good reason to ensure you make what you submit as good as possible!


e)   How long will the book need to be?


The publisher should discuss this with you and, if not, then the contract will state a number.  A non-fiction book’ll probably be 50, 000 to 100, 000 words depending on the subject.



I realise that this is very brief and there are many more questions but most of them will depend on the individual contract.  If you do have a general question, feel free to ask me and I’ll answer it as best I can but bear in mind I am no expert here!

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Diary of a First-Time Author #6– Approaching an Agent or Publisher

OK.  So you’ve decided you do want to go the industry route.  Now what?  What do you need to approach an agent or publisher?  And how do you approach them?


Before I start, bear in mind this will be one of the longest posts in this blog so far – basically because I hope it’ll be useful and I want to go into a non-fiction proposal it in some detail.  So go and make a cup of tea (leave this screen open so you remember to read this) and then sit back down at your computer and read on…


The approach differs depending on whether your submitting fiction or non-fiction.   Some advice applies to both though.


When making an approach:


  1. Ensure you research who you’re approaching beforehand. Knowing who you are approaching will save you a lot of wasted time and potentially stop you looking very, very silly   Agents’ websites give lists of the agency’s list of clients and publishers’ websites showcase the books they have published in the past.  Sometimes there will even be profiles of individual staff members and their favourite authors and genres.  There is absolutely no excuse failing to check these out.  There is also no more certain route to failure than, say, pitching a deliriously bloody horror story to a publisher of children’s books.


  1. If you can get hold of the publisher or agent’s email address – and the harder it is to get hold of one, the more polite you should be when you approach them –I’d recommend sending short polite email directly to the agent or publisher briefly outlining your project and asking for permission to send them a proposal. Ultimately sending your work into people can be a lot of investment of time, money and effort for a great deal of rejection and failure.  Pitching your project beforehand helps you to establish a relationship with agents or publishers and helps ensure you only send your work in to people who might actually want to read it!


  1. If you do send something in without pitching, I’d write a short covering letter.  It gives you a chance to talk about how you see the project and explain your motives for writing it.  This makes it much easier for someone to give you feedback as they get a picture of what you’re aiming for and, if an agent is impressed by the pitch but not the proposal, could even mean they’re prepared to take you on and help you improve.


It also allows you to talk about how you see your book being pitched and marketed.  Both my publishing editor and my agent clearly utterly love books and are knowledgeable, passionate people but the reality is they are working in a business and it helps them to know that you’re a writer who acknowledges this.  And it’s really good for you to be able to have your say early on what you how you think the book should be perceived and who it’s aimed at.





With fiction, you want to include a quick pitch in your original email – this should be no more than a short paragraph (usually the shorter the better) to sell the idea.  Try to make it snappy and capture the essence of what’s unique and interesting about your pitch – basically why is this is a good idea and why are you the best person to write it?


If the person likes that, they’ll probably ask you to send a first chapter – although bear in mind that, in reality, they might only read the first ten pages or so before deciding to pass if they’re not already hooked so a strong start is essential – and possibly a synopsis of the whole plot.  The synopsis would be a few pages and would tell the story of your book, including all the key plot points that are crucial to understanding the story.


Bear in mind that, even though you’re not being asked to send a novel at this point, it’s highly unlikely that anyone will make a decision on whether to go ahead with your work until they’ve read the whole thing – ultimately there’s no other way of telling if you’ve managed to plot and pace it successfully.  For this reason there’s not really a great deal of sense in pitching it until you’ve completed the whole thing.




The big advantage of non-fiction is that you can pitch it and sell a proposal before you’ve written the book.  As with fiction, make the pitch in an email and, if they’re interested, send the following:


1)    A short pitch of the book


Basically this should be a bit like the blurb on the back of the book.  Explain what the book is, include a few juicy facts to capture the reader’s attention and try to use the tone you intend to capture in the book.


Above all, remember that you are selling the book – make it appealing.  To give you an idea, here’s what I submitted for Bad Santas:


How did St Nicholas save children from prostitution and cannibalism?  Who were the Yule Lads and why would they lick your saucepans and steal your sausages?  Why was the Alpine Father Christmas accompanied by a demonic figure called the Krampus who bundled children into sacks and dragged them off to Hell?  And why do Spanish nativity scenes often feature a defecating peasant?


Over the course of the 20th Century, a universal image developed around the world of Santa Claus as a seasonal Christmas visitor but, prior to that, each country, each town and each community would have Christmas visitors of their own – sometimes human, sometimes animal, sometimes something else entirely – with their own curious set of mythology and customs.


Some of these were strange; many of them were utterly, utterly terrifying.  Dutch children were as likely to take a beating from the sinister Zwarte Piet as to receive a present whilst the Finnish were visited by a Pagan goat named Joulupukki that was said to eat anyone who misbehaved.  In Iceland, even doing as you were told wasn’t always enough to avoid being eaten –  it was said that any child who did not received an item of new clothing for Christmas would be caught and consumed by a monstrous Christmas Cat.  Even in countries with a figure that resembled the modern Father Christmas, he was not so much a benign charitable figure as a summary judge, jury and executioner testing out children’s knowledge and fidelity to the Bible and dealing out rewards or punishments as he saw fit.  “You’d better watch out, you’d better not cry, you’d better not pout, I’m telling you why” Haven Gillespie wrote in his famous song about Santa Claus and, for much of history, this advice was something which children would cling to preserve their lives.


This book celebrates some of the most imaginative, most terrifying and most outright curious Christmas figures from around the world.  Some of the characters were vicious, such as the Perchta who’d slit your belly open and replace your innards with straw and pebbles if you hadn’t prepared the Christmas decorations.  Others were more mischievous, such as the Karakancolos who’d jump on your back at night and force you to carry him wherever he wanted to go until the break of dawn.  Others still, such as the Spanish Christmas log that children beat with a stick whilst chanting for it to ‘shit them a gift’, are simply outright bizarre.


Bad Santas and other Creepy Christmas Characters is intended to be engaging and blackly comic with a touch of the macabre and aimed at both those interested in folk mythology, the general reader who wants to learn more about the origins of Christmas and people who are looking for an unusual and engaging Christmas gift.


2 A summary of comparative literature


This should be about a page long.  Explain which other books that exist around your subject and a justify why you should write another one – has not enough been written about the subject?  Do you have a unique take on it?  Do you have access to information other writers did not?  Is there a flaw in the existing books you think you can rectify?  Do you think there’s an audience interested in the subject that wouldn’t be reached by other books?


My argument with Bad Santas was that most books about Santa Claus were either aimed for children or academic audiences and there was no book which covered the history of Santa Claus that was aimed at the general reader.


3 About the Author


This is a few paragraphs long and it’s basically who you are, what you’ve done before and why you should write this book.  Again, remember to sell yourself!


4 A provisional list of chapters


Exactly what it says.  This should just be a list of chapter names – try to use names that sound intriguing but give an idea of what will be in the book.


5 Chapter Overview


Go through the chapters one-by-one and write about 300 – 500 words about what will be in each chapter.  It’s okay if you still need to do a bit more research on the book at this point but make sure you’ve done enough to sound like you know your stuff.


6 One or two sample chapters


Choose the most interesting and show off your writing style.  Aim for a total of between 6000 and 10000 words.



Be engaging, be interesting and include enough details to show that you really know what you’re talking about.  Make sure you get someone to check through it for spelling mistakes, boring bits and any flaws or holes in your writing.


Keep in mind throughout you’re trying to demonstrate that you’ve got a strong idea that you can sustain throughout a 50, 000 – 100, 000 word book and that you’ve got the knowledge and enthusiasm to see it through.  It’s worth putting your research in but the good news is that the research and information you put into your chapter overview is going to be a really useful blueprint when you come to write the book!


Once you’re sure it’s all ready and as good as it can possibly be then fire it off to the agent or publisher and then hope and dream about an offer coming in!

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Diary of a First-Time Author #5 – But what about self-publishing?

I’m aware that my last piece rests on the assumption that you are looking for a publisher to publish your work. Some would argue that, in the age of self-publishing, this is no longer necessary.  Can you not just publish yourself and skip this entire hassle of jumping through hoops to get an agent or publisher to like your work?

Possibly.  It’s not an avenue I explored personally (for reasons that’ll become clear as you read this), and I won’t pretend to be a self-publishing guru, but I do think there are certain things to bear in mind before considering the self-publishing route.

Self-publishing is, in theory, a great thing.  It opens up chances for writers who choose to work outside the publishing industry, allows  writers more control over their work and, especially if you’re a hobbyist writer who just wants to make something available for people to read without the stress and the hassle of finding a publisher, there’s certainly some merit in that.  And anything that makes it easier for a new writer to get their work to an audience has to be welcomed.

If you’re self-publishing in the hope of ultimately making a living as a writer, I feel there are a few things to bear in mind.

Firstly, self-publishing tends to work best for people who work within specific genres – wonderful though the internet is for getting your work out there, it still needs people to search for it and find it and they’ll mostly do that by searching by genre or by “people who liked this also like this” recommendations.  So, if you write a strong crime novel or romance and enough people like it, then there’s a good chance other people searching for crime novels or romances will find it too.  However if you’re writing something that doesn’t fit in with what anyone else is writing, you’ll find it much harder to garner attention.  (The flip side of this, of course, is that you can also succeed by writing a book that is so niche that people looking for a book on a subject will only find yours!)  One of the things that large publishing houses can do – and often will do – is take a book that might have otherwise struggled to find an audience due to its subject matter and turn it into a hit once people realise how good it is.  I find it hard to imagine The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, The Life of Pi or The Kite Runner, for example, would have garnered a huge amount of attention had they been self-published.

What’s more, it’s important to realise that self-publishing doesn’t remove the business and publicity aspect from you’re doing but rather makes you responsible for selling and marketing your work.  To self-publish and succeed, you need to not only be a strong writer but also be your own agent, publisher, salesperson and marketing team and I would confidently guess that the people who’ve done well out of self-publishing have done so based on business acumen and self-publicity just as much as their writing skills.  (That’s not a dig by the way – business acumen is a fantastic thing for a writer to have and I really wish I had some myself!)

More importantly, you need to be your own editor too – or find someone else who can do it for you.  You might be able to put out a book without needing clearance and approval from editors, proofreaders and fact-checkers but that does not mean facts don’t need to be checked, errors don’t need to be corrected or large sections of your book won’t need rewriting and rewriting and rewriting to make them as good as they can possibly be.  (Just ignore the fact that, when it comes to my own work, I’m the world’s worst proof-reader and am doubtless showing up my own hypocrisy in this blog!)

Related to this, if self-publishing is to gain as strong a reputation as ‘industry’ publishing then it has to do so because it’s populated by people writing high-quality work that doesn’t quite fit in with the expectations of the conventional book world.  This could be by aiming for niches that the mainstream book industry is too large to creep into or by being populated by writers who are confident, self-sufficient and feel they want to be free to work without commercial considerations, rather than people who really want to be published conventionally but are self-publishing because their work has been continually rejected by the mainstream publishing industry.

Tough though it is too take manuscripts are generally rejected for a reason and, much as people cite famous misjudgements like Decca Records turning down the Beatles or the Life of Pi being rejected by 5 major publishers, these tend to be famous precisely because they are exceptions rather than the norm.   And even then the Beatles ultimately did get a record label Yann Martel found a publisher so the lesson there is more that it can take a lot of work and a lot of knockbacks to find the agent or publisher who sees the value in your work rather than that someone who’s been rejected by the entire industry is likely to prove everyone wrong.   If you do find your work is being rejected then it’s far better to look at the reasons why – whether it’s that you haven’t approached the right people yet or whether it’s because you’re work needs to be improved – rather than simply assuming everyone is wrong and carrying on anyway.

There are potentially good motives for choosing to self-publish – and these motives will only get stronger as self-publishing develops over time – but I think this has to be a choice you make, rather than one you’re forced into due to a lack of options and I honestly believe that anyone who writes well enough and gets their approach right can ultimately get that choice for themselves.  Self-publishing can be a way to market yourself to publishers but only if you make sure your work is strong enough to act as a selling point.

Ultimately putting out something that is not good enough will only serve to damage your reputation as a writer.  Like independent music, self-publishing can only be at its best when it’s populated by people who really believe in the value of independent working outside of industry conventions, rather than simply becoming a home for rejected manuscripts by authors who crave mainstream success but are either too cocksure or too unwilling to objectively assess their work and make improvements.   Whatever form you choose for publishing your work, there is never an excuse for not doing everything you can to make something as brilliant as it can possibly be!

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Diary of a First-Time Author #4 – Agents vs working directly with publishers

OK.  So you’re putting yourself out there, meeting new people and showing off your writing skills at every opportunity.  But, if agents and publishers aren’t beating a path to your doorstep, you may want to approach them yourself.  How do you do it?  Who do you approach?


The first question is whether to send it to an agent or directly to a publisher (or, of course, to self-publish but I’ll discuss that in the next article).  For me, an agent is definitely the best option.  Admittedly it introduces another person that your book has to get past to be published – and it does mean surrendering 15% of your earnings plus VAT – but there are three definite advantages to having an agent and they make a huge difference.


1.  Your agent can open doors that you may not be able to


There are two reasons for this.  Firstly, rightly or wrongly, many publishers see agents as a quality control barrier and are often reluctant to accept submissions from anyone who hasn’t got an agent first – even those that claim they do accept unsolicited submissions might simply place them on the ‘slush pile’ where junior staff and interns read ten or so pages and discard if it if they’ve not already been hooked by the writing.  An agent acts as an endorsement of a writer and thus means publishers may take you much more seriously.


Secondly, it’s the agent’s job to build relationships with commissioning editors and know their personal and professional tastes, their personalities and how best to approach them.  Whilst you might spend several hours leafing through the Writer’s Handbook or googling for addresses of people you might be able to send your book to – and still not really know if they’re the right people or anything about their personality or preferences – your agent will often know exactly who to place it with, and  how best to sell it to them.  This hugely increases your chances of success.


2.  Your agent is a businessperson


You might be a businessperson too of course.  But I know for sure I’m definitely not.  I know nothing of contracts, very little about how book negotiations work, have limited ideas about what the ‘right’ rate of pay is for my writing.  What’s more I’m terrible at selling myself and feel really self-conscious about asking for money.  If you’re anything like me then it’s damned useful having someone who can take care of all of those things for you, get you the best deal possible and let you focus on your writing.


3.  Your agent can give you feedback to improve your work


You’re probably only get one shot at submitting a particular project to a publisher so you want to sell yourself at your best.   You also want to look like a professional by sending things in the right format, giving the appropriate amount of information and making the right pitch.  An agent deals with pitches all the time and will know exactly what publishers want.  Nowadays agents also act as editors and will take time with you to improve your work and make it as good as possible before the publisher sees it.  This does not only improve your chances of acceptance – it also potentially drives up how much you earn!  A writer I know spent a year being told by his agent to do draft after draft after draft of his novel.  Doubtless it was time-consuming and frustrating but it certainly paid off when a bidding war saw him receive an advance that allowed him to buy his first home!


In my own case, my agent was really helpful in helping me hone the proposal, streamline what I was writing about and really identify what was appealing about the book.  What was originally going to be a more general history of Santa Claus became more focussed on the darker aspects of Santa mythology and the strange characters Santa has been associated with through the years.  Suddenly I had a book with a clear hook and selling point and, in all probability, that’s what got it sold.


And, as the economics of the book trade go tighter, publishers are less and less likely to take a risk on a writer or project that needs substantial improvement. A good agent can really, really make a difference.

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Diary of a First-Time Writer #3 – A Quick Note on Working for Free

So I’ve talked about doing something to get your work out there and get yourself noticed. One obvious way of doing that is putting your work online and, if you start trying to get your writing published online, sooner or later someone will offer you a chance to contribute to their website – usually there won’t be payment involved but instead it’ll be sold as an opportunity for exposure or to get noticed.

So should you do it?

First off, if you are considering working for free, this website is essential reading


Practically speaking, I’d always be cynical of anything that claims to give you “great exposure” or “raise your profile”.   A lot of websites and publications that make such claims do nothing of the sort and the problem is that, once websites realise there’s a market of aspiring writers who are happy to work for free to gain opportunities, any incentive to pay writers to write disappears.  So, rather than improving their chances of getting paid work in the future, writers who work for free actually tend to lessen the amount of paid work around and thus create a situation where nobody gets paid.  Except perhaps the website via their adverts and sponsorship deals.

What’s more, if you want to showcase your writing, it’s really important that you write things that you actually want to write and show what you want to do.  There’s absolutely no point in trying to showcase yourself by writing something that doesn’t play to your strengths.  It’s far better off to create a blog and use that to write things that you really care about.

The other essential thing to realise is that, if you do try to get an agent or sell a book or even a freelance article, you’re going to be judged on what you propose and what you do on that piece of work alone.  Whilst it doesn’t hurt to have some examples of previous work you don’t necessarily need it and, unless your blog or something you’ve written really catches fire on the internet, it’s probably not going to make that much of a difference what websites you’ve written for.  (This is a little bit different if you want to write journalism but I still think a good blog of your own is going to make a greater difference than bits and pieces on other websites.  This can change if you can become the editor of that website of course!)

Which isn’t to say you should never write for free – I’ve written academic articles for books before which I didn’t get paid for but I was interested in subjects in question and it was a chance to see my work published in a book, which was ace.  And, if you write for, say, an online music or film magazine you might get given free stuff to review or the chance to interview people you admire.  So you might be getting something out of it that isn’t actually money.

But you should ask yourself the following questions:

1)    Would you write this anyway?

2)    Is this how you want to come across as a writer?

3)    Is someone making money whilst you’re not?

Having people read your writing is great and there’s obviously something brilliant about people wanting you and wanting to see your work but the bottom line is that anytime you’re not being paid to write then you’re doing it as a hobby rather than work.  So treat it on these terms and make sure you’re enjoying it!

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