Notes from a failed novelist

I have spent the past three years or so living in a kind of dream world. I’d found an agent. I imagined my debut novel on the shelves of Waterstones. I believed I could do it. I stopped sending off so many short story competition entries. I worked hard when my friends were walking the moors, or enjoying the Cornish coastline. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I felt hopeful. Hard work will pay off, I thought.

I wish I could tell you that it was worth it, that my dream is about to come true.

I can’t.

My agent couldn’t find a publisher for my first book. OK. I wrote another. She loved the second one, she said. She made me feel I was going to make it in the big wide world. I didn’t. She couldn’t find anyone who thought my novel about the sixties worth investing in. People said the writing was good, but… I wrote a third novel, set in the fifties. Not what people wanted to read about. Not going to be what anyone wants. Not the sort of book that will be in Waterstones. Not ever.

Now I have no agent.

I am back at square one. It’s not a lonely place. I know others who have had the same experience. I am not angry, just disappointed. And sad, too, of course.

Stick with me, kids. I’m finishing a non-fiction book very shortly, and I’m going to start writing a novel for children.

Am I going to get there in the end?  I don’t know any more, but I’m going to give it my best shot.

I was cheered recently when I read on Twitter that my flash fiction Kirianna had made the list of finalists in the Storgy competition. It is to be published in a paperback called Exit Earth. I felt a faint glimmer of hope.

The future may well be bright.

Don’t give up, writers. Our time will come!

Frog: Today I am smelling the roses.


Scarlet lily beetles are beautiful. They are also a menace. They treat lily leaves like a feast nurtured especially for them. Their larvae have orange bodies and black heads, but you don’t get to see much of these cheeky little fellows, because they hide in a blob of their own excrement, and munch with incredible speed.

Now, if a writer has you gripped in the pages of their book and she mentions lily beetle larvae attacking the roses, you stop. You frown. ‘That’s not right, is it?’ you think. You reread the passage to make sure you haven’t misunderstood. Then you realise. The writer hasn’t checked the facts. You’ve been distracted from the plot, and you may feel disappointed, too.

So, resolution number one:

If we’re not sure of our facts, let’s check them with the experts. For example, let’s go to the RHS website for advice on plants, and the RSPB for facts about birds. Etcetera.

The faithful Wikipedia, whose photograph is reproduced above, says

‘The lily beetle belongs to the order Coleoptera, and the family Chrysomelidae, the leaf beetles. The adult lily beetle is about 6 to 9 mm in length, with relatively long legs and antennae. Its elytra (harder forewings) are bright scarlet and shiny. Its underside, legs, eyes, antennae and head are all black. It has large eyes, a slim thorax, and a wide abdomen. Each antenna is made up of 11 segments. The eyes are notched and there are two grooves on the thorax.’

All totally riveting, but… if my character was a lily beetle, would I need to give so much information at once? I think not. I would expect eyes glazing over at the least, never mind closing my book, and my reader vowing never to read another of my stories.

It’s the same with descriptions. A couple of well-chosen details can make a character totally believable, or a setting completely real. Readers have broad imaginations, and are willing to fill in details for themselves.

So, resolution number two:

Let’s try to remember that less is more.

For those interested, Wikipedia says:

‘This lily beetle may be confused with the cardinal beetle (Pyrochroa serraticornis), which also has red elytra and a black underside. The wing cases of the lily leaf beetle are dimpled and are shinier and more rounded than those of the cardinal beetle, which are relatively dull, and narrower, flatter, and more elongated. The cardinal beetle also has comb-like antennae. The lily leaf beetle is herbivorous, while the cardinal beetle preys on insects.’ 

When we write a story, let’s try not to confuse the reader by introducing characters that are similar, but not the same. I read a children’s novel recently where groups of names were so similar – very short and starting with the same letter – I could scarcely keep up with them. OK, I know children have young, fast-moving thought-processes, but I thought that several young readers at any one time may have ended up feeling their brains had been invaded by identical aliens.

So, resolution number three:

Let’s try to make our characters distinct individuals, with minds, characters, and names that cannot be confused with anyone else in their world.

Unless they happen to be identical twins of course. That’s a different story!


FROG: (Scanning for lily beetles) 

I’m sure they must be edible. There’s only one way to find out.


I’ve been thinking about some of the mistakes I’ve made in the past (and probably will again), so here is my list of gardening tips for writers. Tried and tested you may be sure.


Take out words that threaten to overpower a whole sentence. We know dandelions are pretty, but they don’t belong on your lawn. Ask yourself. There may be a place for excessively flowery language, but is it really here?


Sometimes necessary for the story’s survival in a harsh world. Edit your work, looking carefully at sentences, phrases, and words. Reread your work several times before sending it off. Out loud at least once.


Decide carefully where to place your lovely new plants. Give your story the best chance to thrive by considering the best publication or competition for it. Women’s Weekly? Gardener’s World? A literary magazine? A competition?


Stuck for ideas? Go back to your notebook and review ideas and clippings. There will be things in there that you’ve forgotten about. Maybe the very idea you need right now.

Decide how to deal with unwanted pests

Namely, people who say you’re wasting your time. People who want you to change the ending and you think that will wreck the whole piece. People who give you negative criticism without considering your feelings and/or without saying something positive about the piece in question.


Keep a list of where you send your work, with the date. Note any successes and definitely celebrate these thrice over!




Frog: (through gritted teeth)

It’s very prickly up here, and I feel as if I’m about to be pruned myself.



I have the March edition of Writing Magazine open on my desk. I’m looking at the Subscriber Spotlight section, where authors tell us about their latest books. I’ve selected the ones with an up-to-date website and posed a couple of questions:

Do they blog? If yes, what do they blog about, and how often?

It’s well worth reading each of the blogs, with your writer’s hat on.

What do you like best about each blog? Could yours be as good as these?


The heroine of Wendy Percival’s three books is a ‘genealogy sleuth’. Wendy blogs monthly about her family history and how it influences her writing. This is definitely interesting and inspiring for people who are investigating their own ancestry.


Rosemary J Kind’s latest novel, New York Orphan, is historical fiction. There’s a tremendous enthusiasm in the way she writes her monthly blog, which keeps readers up to date with her life as a writer.

Rosemary also writes an empathetic, caring, and humorous blog on behalf of her wonderful companions, a tribe of Entlebucher Mountain dogs. She has written daily (missing once, unavoidably) since January 2006, on behalf of Alfie and co. This is described as Alfie’s Diary – dog enough not to be human, human enough to be a pet.

The Complete Entlebucher Mountain Dog Book by Rosemary J Kind was launched on 14th January 2018.



Rachel Sargeant introduces us to her latest psychological thriller, The Perfect Neighbours, in WM’s Subscriber Spotlight. In her 31st January blog she posts her Goodreads reviews of the four crime novels she had read during the month. This is interesting for readers of crime, and it offers some publicity to the authors. There was no easy way to access past blogs, which may be a point of consideration if you are thinking of setting up a blog of your own.


Maria Stephenson’s debut collection of poems is celebrated in Subscriber Spotlight. A creative writing teacher, Marie blogs with advice for writers, and she has also written a six-part series, ‘Why Stay for So Long?’ She blogs several times a month, encouraging others. For example, on 22nd January, her blog was called ‘The Five Stages of Writing, Re-Writing and Editing’, which many fellow-writers would be delighted to read.


‘Help! I’m a New Mum!’ is a book of ‘honest shouts and whispers to God about all things baby – from labour to love, from panic to peace, from smells to smiles.’ Pam blogs regularly, four times a month. A positive attitude and Christian theme of trust in God runs through her work. Do visit Pam’s photographer’s gallery, which contains beautiful, uplifting images.


Jonathan Hastings is a former policeman with several novels to his credit. His latest book, Active, is published under the name Dan Hastings. He has a section on his website entitled NEWS/BLOG where you can keep up to date with his books and his achievements.

Feeling inspired?

Dear Reader, let me know if you’ve set up a blog recently, and I’ll be glad to pop by and say hello.

After all, it’s the readers who make a blogger’s life worthwhile.


Frog: (Timidly)

Excuse me. That Entlebucher isn’t hungry, is he?





Katya: I’ve never ever heard anything so mad. You, write a blog? Don’t make me laugh.

Danica: Don’t mock, Kat. Now I’ve published my book, I have to get my name out there.

Katya: Out where?

Danica: In the world, of course.

Katya: OK, so what’s this here blog going to be about?

Danica: Not sure yet. I’ve looked for ideas online. I found a good site that gives suggestions.

Katya: Really? You mean there’s that kind of stuff out there? How much is it?

Danica: It’s free. Yes really. Take a look.

She taps her phone. Gets up   

Katya: That’s something that is. Anything grab you?

Danica: Reads text. ‘What would you say to a younger version of yourself?’ I like that.

Katya:  A younger version of myself? Actually I’d say, ‘Yes please.’ She sighs.

Danica: Stoppit! How about, ‘What helpful books have you read recently?’

Katya: I like that, Dan. You read one about writing romantic fiction, didn’t you? When you were editing your novel.

Danica: Yes, and I wished I’d read it before I started.

Katya: There you are then.

Danica: There’s another page I liked, er, hang on… look, here it is. She taps her phone. Gets up

Actually, half of me can’t wait to get started and the other half’s scared stiff.

Katya: Seems to me, it’s all very well, Dan, being enthusiastic. But, won’t it be time wasted? Castles in the air, and all that? What if no-one reads it?

Danica: You’ll read it, won’t you?

Katya: If I ‘ave to!

Danica: Cheeky beggar!

Katya: I don’t want to be depressing, but you haven’t sold many books yet, have you? Shouldn’t you wait until…

Danica: What? Until I’m famous? It’ll be too late then, Kat. Besides, I like writing, don’t I? And even if you and my mum are the only ones to read my stuff, well, it’s all good practice, isn’t it?

Katya: What are you going to blog about then? I’m not reading it if it’s boring.

Danica: It’s so refreshing to have such a supportive friend! Actually, it’s always your honesty that I appreciate. I’ll need a theme of some kind.

Katya: You mean like, sand art, or keeping gerbils.

Danica: I’m not exactly an expert in those fields, Kat. In fact, thinking about it, I’m not an expert at anything.

Katya: Oh, sorry, Dan. I didn’t mean to put a damper on it. Look, you can write a blog without being an expert. You take brilliant photos. You can use some of those to make your blog more, I don’t know, more inviting.

Danica: Not convinced. Yeah. I’ve thought about doing one on my favourite books. What do you think?

Katya: Sounds good to me. But before you go ahead, I’ll make us a coffee, you get those websites on-screen again, and we’ll do a bit of blue-sky thinking! You never know, you might even convince me to start a blog of my own.

Frog: (Excitedly) 

Frog Blog. What a title, eh? The little froglets will be hopping over each other in their excitement to read it. It’ll spark a lot of conversation, I know it will. (He glares) What do you mean, ‘Rhubarb, rhubarb!’





Blogging gives you your own platform where you can create a professional image. As a writer, you can talk about things that are relevant to your readers, and they can get to know you a bit better.

Blogging is also a good way of interacting with other writers, of giving support to them, and of feeling supported by them.

It’s important to think about your potential readers. Who are they? What kind of things are they going to be interested in reading about?


Many successful blogs have a unique angle, whether it’s baking French patisserie, playing better golf, or talking about an aspect of writing.

OK. Your job for the next week is to investigate what other writers are blogging about, and find out what makes their blogs interesting and attractive. Here are a few suggestions to start you off.

Helen Yendall, who writes for Writing Magazine, blogs at and Tracy Fells, Canada/Europe winner of the 2017 Canada/Europe Commonwealth Writers short story prize, blogs at These two writers use their blogs to share their knowledge about writing, to offer hints and tips, and to keep their readers up to date with their achievements.

A blog I often look at belongs to Fran Hill. You can find it at Fran has a delightful sense of humour, and can cheer up the dullest day!

All three of the bloggers I’ve mentioned write in a lively and entertaining way, and each has her own individual voice.


You’ll notice that Helen uses WordPress for her blog, and Tracy and Fran use Blogger. I have some good news for you now.

It will cost you nothing to create a blog with WordPress or Blogger.

What is there to lose? So… if you like the idea of blogging and want to know more, I recommend the following website, run by Jane Friedman.

Here Jane tells you everything you need to know about blogging, and much, much more. She’s a writer’s perfect friend.

Frog: (This is an happy as he gets!) 

Do not forget that I, too, may be described as a writer’s perfect friend. It is an honour to serve.





What are you waiting for?

Now that December is here, I reckon the average small child’s answer will be, ‘Christmas.’

For the enthusiastic writer, it could be, ‘A lucky break.’

Every adult knows that before Christmas there’s a lot to be done – shopping, planning, baking, writing cards, posting parcels, putting up the decorations, choosing a tree, sorting out the tree lights. All this and more. As well as putting on your finery, looking relaxed, and going out partying.

Does that sound like a frantic dash to reach the finishing line, and not being a prize Christmas Mug on the way?

But somehow, you do it. You get there.

To Christians the season before Christmas is called Advent. It begins 4 Sundays before Christmas and it lasts approximately 4 weeks.

There are no lessons is making mince pies and plum puddings. No-one forces an innocent man (is there such a thing?) into a Father Christmas costume, and makes him sit at the school Christmas Fair going, ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’ There are no obligatory practices of ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’.

In the Christian Church, Advent is a time of expectant waiting and hopeful anticipation. Things not achieved lightly in the frantic run-up to the Big Day.

Things not achieved lightly in the writing world.

Writers have to carry on in the face of rejections, failure to make the shortlist of a competition, failure to impress a publisher. We must not give up. We must create an amazing idea, we must write and edit, and send pieces of work out into the world, and then start all over again. And again.

Always hoping for that lucky break.

What are you waiting for?

Frog: (sighing):

I’m waiting for a nice drop of rain.


NaNoWriMo’s here again. All over the country, writers are banging away at keyboards, or scribbling words in a script that may well prove illegible when the editing stage is reached. I really admire the dedication of these amazing people, their ability to shut out the world for days at a time, while they concentrate on getting that first draft down, as speedily as possible.

Please forgive me when I say I can’t do that. My head refuses. My mind insists on lingering over a poor sentence, whereas the brave NaNo people know they can edit the whole thing later. Who’s going to judge that first draft anyway?

I suppose I’m a bit like the tortoise in the old fable. The hare streaks past. I plod on. I think the important thing is that we both finish, and that we’re both prepared to reread our work with an open mind, knowing that however long the first draft takes, the book is not yet finished. The vitally important bit is yet to come. Editing.

Julian Gough, writer of ‘serious novels disguised as funny novels’, recently wrote in The Stinging Fly:

“You don’t need to learn how to write, you need to learn how to edit. But then, editing is writing; writing is editing. The separation of the two is FAKE NEWS.”

Julian Gough’s essay on editing is well worth reading. It can be found at 

Good luck to all NaNoWriMo participants, and to all fellow tortoises.


Frog: (Outraged)

Hares? Tortoises? What about frogs?

Have you no respect?

Are you trying to edit me out?







I bet you’ve got a pile of books waiting for your attention, wonky or otherwise!

As writers we know we ought to read, read, read, as widely and diversely as possible.

This way we absorb lots of information about how good writers captivate their audience. I’ve just finished ‘A Game for all the Family’ by Sophie Hannah – a psychological thriller which had me riveted and guessing throughout. Looking back, I learnt a lot about creating tension, and I liked the author’s ‘voice’, her use of language, and her choice of phrases.

As writers we never stop learning. I recently discovered Joanna Penn and her website 

Joanna is a successful writer with a passion for helping other writers. She offers a free resources, including a download packed with advice. Well worth seeking her out.

You might like this book, too, which I discovered some time ago. ‘Reading like a Writer’, by Francine Prose is subtitled ‘A guide for those who love books and for those who want to write them.’  The author sets out to give the reader a study of how a writer makes things work – words, sentences, paragraphs, etcetera. She taught me how to read critically; how to learn from everything I read.

So… Happy reading!

I’d love to know which websites and books you’ve found useful as a writer.

Frog: (After much thought)

In my opinion, this is the best book ever.





Let’s think about anecdotes, and how they can earn you some money.



‘A short amusing or interesting story about a real incident or person’

or ‘an account regarded as unreliable or hearsay.’ says it’s

‘An unusually short narrative of an interesting, amusing, or biographical incident.’

These two definitions highlight the fact that an anecdote tells of something that actually happened, (even if the recalling is unreliable or turns into mere hearsay) and it concerns a person who really exists, or existed.

I went to Wikipedia, where I found this:

‘An anecdote is a brief, revealing account of an individual person or an incident. Often humorous, anecdotes differ from jokes because their primary purpose is not simply to provoke laughter, but to reveal a truth more general than the brief tale itself, such as to characterize a person by delineating a specific quirk or trait, to communicate an abstract idea about a person, place, or thing through the concrete details of a short narrative.

An anecdote is “a story with a point.”

We all recount anecdotes frequently, don’t we? In a café, the pub, with family and friends round the dinner table. We tell how we managed to be late when we set off so early; how someone tripped over a piece of broccoli in the supermarket and lost their sunglasses under the freezer cabinet; how the baby of the family kept asking, ‘What’s that man doing?’ until one day…

Amusing or hilarious incidents can earn you money. Magazines are always looking for stories and letters to entertain their readers. I’ve had a couple of anecdotes in Reader’s Digest in the section You couldn’t make it up. The editor is on the look-out for end-of-article fillers, funny stories, and more. There is usually a letters page in a magazine, and the star letter may be offered a reward. Check out some magazines. Invest in a couple of copies, and see the kind of thing they’re looking for. Then go for it.

Maggie Cobbett, a writer from Ripon in Yorkshire, has had a lot of success writing very short pieces for magazines. She’s also shared her know-how in her book, ‘Easy money for writers and wannabes.’ Great ideas. Good advice.

Why not experiment with a few anecdotes of your own? Then take the plunge, and send one or two off.


                         Frog: (jauntily)

Anecdotes? When do we start?