... and not enough of this.

HOW To Finish Your Damn Book

At the beginning of this year I wrote a post for that treasure trove of writing and publishing information, Writing.ie, about why you should finish your damn book. You can read that post here. It proved really popular. So popular that it seems to me like a lot of you are in the same place I was until last summer: wanting nothing more than to have finished your book, but finding yourself doing everything but writing it.

It’s all well and good for me to tell you why you should finish your book (nutshell: a finished book is the one thing everyone who ever got published/successfully self-published has in common) but how do you do it? How do you overcome procrastination? How do you finish your damn book?

I only know what worked for me, but maybe you’ll find something in there that works for you. Let’s see…

1. Reality check: do you really WANT to write this book?

For about two years a few years ago, I was trying to write the book that I thought would get me published, not realizing that this was also the kind of book I didn’t want to read. I had plenty of ideas, a plot outline, a killer title – but every time I sat down to add to my word count, it was like getting blood from a stone. That’s okay, I told myself. Writing is supposed to be hard. When I finally realized I was trying to type my way up the wrong tree and switched to writing the kind of book I loved to read – a serial killer thriller – there was practically an audible click.

Writing the wrong book, I’d begin a chapter by thinking Okay: 1,500 words. What can happen here that will take that to unfold? I was stretching out my plot points, trying to fill the virtual white pages with “set pieces” that would take me from one event to the next. But writing the right book, that became Okay: 1,500 words. How am I going to squeeze everything that happens at this point into that? I always knew what was going to happen next and in writing it, it was a case of even more ideas popping up during the process, rather than having to milk the few I had for more than they were worth.

That’s not to say that the book [eye roll] “flowed out” of me, as I’ve heard other writers say/lie. There were still struggles, still many non-productive days. But nothing as bad as when I wasn’t writing the right book, when I wasn’t writing the book I wanted to read.

Before you commit to this, check you’re trying to finish the right damn book.


This doesn’t suit everyone, but I couldn’t even attempt a novel without having some sort of plan.  It doesn’t have to be detailed, but a few signposts along the way will take the pressure off. Think about it: how does it feel to have to work your way from 0 to 100,000 words (your beginning to your ending) compared to working your way from 0 to 25,000 words (your beginning to your break into Act II) or even 0 to 5,000 words (your beginning to your catalyst/inciting incident)?

(These word counts are just examples, by the way. You can put your plot points wherever you like.)

Making a plan also avoids having to cross the wasteland of the Dreaded Middle. When we get novel ideas, they usually come with a beginning and an end. But what happens in between? How do we ensure that our middle doesn’t sag, it being the place that’s most likely to? I think a few signposts or tentpoles will really help to lead the way and curtail any aimless wandering.

You could have, just for example:

  • Beginning
  • Set-up
  • Inciting incident (that sends main character off on journey)
  • Start of B story
  • Midpoint – what happens half-way through your story that changes everything and/or significantly ramps up the tension/raises the stakes? If you even just had this along with a beginning and an end, you’d make things so much easier for yourself
  • “Dark Night of the Soul” to use Snyder’s term (see below) – the lowest point for your character
  • Act III/finale
  • Ending

I recommend Save the Cat by Blake Snyder to everyone I know who writes commercial fiction. Yes, it’s a screenwriting book, but with a few tweaks it works wonders for commercial novel plotting too. Not only does it help you fill in the middle, but it shows you how to construct an incredibly satisfying story. It’s like Robert McKee’s Story, but a For Dummies version of it.

Are you shaking your head right now, dismayed at the notion of a storytelling formula? Get over yourself. This isn’t about formulae, but principles. You’d agree that every story has to have a beginning, middle and end, wouldn’t you? All that’s happening here is that we’re examining what happens between those three points. As Snyder says (and this is another paraphrase), when you know the principles of storytelling you have a framework that you can set down on top of your novel idea to check for holes. It’s not giving you a story or telling you how to make one up – it’s a stress test, a checklist that can determine whether or not the story you have has structural integrity and if it doesn’t, where the strengthening work needs to go.

Finishing your damn book will be a lot easier when you can break it up into smaller, manageable pieces.

3. the Entertainment Business

I had an epiphany while reading Rachel Aaron’s shot of motivation to the writer’s heart/e-book, 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better and Writing More of What You Love (99p on Amazon): I’m in the entertainment business. What I’m trying to create is, above all else, entertainment.

I’m with Harlan Coben, quoted in The Guardian back in 2007:

Screen Shot 2015-04-15 at 11.46.48

Aaron talks about how, reflecting on her process, writing seemed to be at its easiest and most enjoyable when she came to write the scenes she loved, the ones she’d conceived of first, the pieces of the book she wrote the rest of it to get to. When she got in the zone, writing her book became almost like reading it. She wondered: shouldn’t it be like that all the time? If your goal is to entertain readers, isn’t there something wrong if you, the writer, can’t keep yourself entertained with your own book? Shouldn’t a scene that’s a drudge for you to write sound an alarm bell?

Honestly, this idea freed me.

First of all I stopped worrying about fancy sentences and evocative language. (When I read my favourite scribe, Sir Michael Connelly, I never notice the language. It’s like a translucent membrane; I see through it to the story. It’s like the page and the words on it don’t exist, but Bosch and his LA do, fully. To me, that takes far more skill to produce than a certain literary writer who spends a whole day at his desk perfecting just the one sentence, writing it over and over until it’s good enough for him to turn around and type it into the computer on his other side…) From them on, I just had one goal: work out/get down the story. I could move much quicker this way.

Secondly, I stopped at the beginning of every chapter to ask myself how I could write it in the most entertaining way possible, a way that would be fun for me to create as well as keep any eventual reader turning the pages. I didn’t start until I could answer that and if I couldn’t, I scrapped the chapter altogether. This way, there were no “duds”. No chapters I had to trudge through to get Mr X from A to B.

I also got into the habit of ending each chapter with a line that (hopefully) forced the reader to push onto the next (the “just one more chapter” syndrome I suffer from as a reader, usually late at night), and deciding on that line at the beginning. This was really excellent motivation to finish the chapter sooner rather than later, because I knew where I was going and I was dying to get to that killer line, partly so I could slap the desk and say “BOOM!” which is what I like to do when I’m overly pleased with myself at the end of a chapter… (Don’t tell anyone.)

It’ll be easier to finish the damn book if you are enjoying the process. If you’re not entertained by your story, what are the chances readers will be?

4. stage your own NANOWRIMO

Early this year I discovered that it’s infinitely easier to commit to finishing a project by pulling out all the stops for a short, intense period of time than it is to say, commit to getting up at the crack of dawn every morning for a year so you can get 500 words down before your real life begins. It’s easier to sustain motivation, it’s easier to keep your novel in your head and when you are really going at it, writing whenever you can, after a few days you don’t even need motivation anymore because the book takes over.

I went from telling myself that there was no point in even starting anything because I only had a free hour to sitting down at my desk even if I only had ten minutes. (This from the girl who once upon a time believed that if you hadn’t started your writing day by 10:00am, you might as well wait until tomorrow.) It’s also easier to forgo socializing, appointments, human interaction, etc. for 4-6 weeks than it is to resist invitations to fun for months or years.

You will have to make sacrifices. This is something I don’t think I truly understood until I had six weeks earlier this year in which to re-write my novel, alongside being in university full-time and having freelance work to keep up so I could pay my rent too. For me, this meant doing nothing else except writing, working, being at university and sleeping – and I did a lot less sleeping than I usually do. It was hard and I had to push myself, but it was doable because I knew it was for a limited amount of time.

Be realistic about the phrase “I don’t have time.” Is that really true? You don’t have time to do the thing you want to do most in the world? You have to find it. Don’t be like the participant on a weight loss show that aired in Ireland last year who threw a strop at having to prepare healthy meals because it was sooooo time-consuming and she was sooooo busy – the same woman who, before she embarked on the programme, managed somehow to find the time to drink an entire bottle of red wine in front of the TV every night.

Practical tip: clean your entire house and cook up lots of things that can be frozen before you begin, so you have as few distractions as possible. It also helps to tell everyone what you’re doing. It makes it easier for you to say no to invitations, ignore phone calls and e-mails, etc. but it also gives you a bit of accountability.

It may be easier to press “pause” on life so you can finish your damn book in a matter of weeks, rather than trying to fit in and keep up a daily writing routine for months or years. 

5. Don’t read over what you’ve written

Again this may not work for everyone and I know there are those who like to edit as they go, but editing as you go was why I didn’t get past 10,000 words for more than a year. You just have to keep going. Stop mid-sentence so you can pick right up when you left off the next time you sit down at your desk. Resist the urge to edit. You’ll edit in the next draft.

At the same time, write the best chapters you possibly can – but in terms of what happens in them, not necessarily the line-by-line language. (If that makes sense.) Think of how professional editing works: it starts with structural things, and only then moves into the language. You should work the same way, I think,  especially if you are writing a first draft.

I really couldn’t resist this for a long time, until I hit upon an idea: print out your book as you go. Every time you get to the end of a scene or chapter, hit PRINT and then put the pages in a pile to one side. Far away enough so you can’t read it, but close enough so you can be reminded of your progress.

Speaking of progress, charts are your friend. Make a big one in which you can write the number of words you wrote per day, or use a calendar. Sometimes you’ll stay at your desk just because you can’t face writing ’29’ in the box for today, trust me.

It’s easier to keep moving forward when you don’t stop to look back. 

* * * * *

So there you go. Sorry this post is so long but I have my first lot of end of year exams coming up, so I just don’t have the time to blog as much as I’d like. A long post whenever I do hopefully makes up for this.

Also: look! I changed my blog. Catherine is still caffeinated but this pile of HTML bricks is just catherineryanhoward.com now, and the pink is more an accent colour than a drowning depth of candy floss. There’s been some reorganization too. What do you think?

Have you managed to finish your damn book? Tell us how you did it in the comments below.

You might also be interested in this post I recently wrote for Writing.ie: Should You Be Best Friends with a Writer, Daahling? 

The Surprising Thing About Rejection (Or What I Learned in 2014)

This will likely be my last blog post in 2014 and you might want to make a cup of coffee, because it’s gonna be a long one…

In past Decembers I’ve compiled gift guides, and last year I shared my first Christmas in a place I lived all by myself (and so could decorate as I pleased, safe in the knowledge that no one could touch anything or suddenly appear with a strand of the most offensive substance known to man, tinsel). But this year I’m coming to the end of my first term in Trinity College Dublin, barely three months in to a four-year degree in English Studies that I started at the ripe age of 32, and assignments are due. This necessitated a move to Dublin, one of the most expensive cities in the world; the shoebox I now live in, while comfortable and suitably Catherine-fied, couldn’t fit as much as a bauble. (I have no books here. That’s how small it is.) And once college breaks up at the end of the next week, I have to use my month off to—

Well, let me back up a little.

This has been a very exciting year. There was always something about 2014; I knew it would be a big one. During it I did three things I’ve been dreaming about for ages, for years in some cases: I moved to Dublin, I started studying English at Trinity and I signed with an agent. The agent, rather. The one who is at the very top of your wish list if you’re a woman who writes crime, the one who represents such awe-inspiring writers that you nearly didn’t even bother submitting to her because you assumed there was absolutely no chance, and when—

Well, let me back up a little again.


2014 Highlights: Trinity College Dublin as it looked on my first day as a student. 

I want to tell you about the two very important lessons I’ve learned this year.

The first is that when it comes to making big changes, pursuing your dreams or just doing anything that will yank you out of your comfort zone, making the decision to do it is the hardest part.

Honestly, it is. Strolling around Trinity’s historical campus one sunny day in September – having previously only ever strolled around it as a tourist – I couldn’t quite believe that I was there. I go here now, I kept whispering to myself. How had it happened? [For those of you who don’t live in Ireland, Trinity is like Ireland’s Harvard. It’s for the top scorers. Mature students aren’t considered on their years-old exam results – thankfully! – but places are incredibly restricted and competition is fierce. But I filled my application form with all my book and publishing antics over the last five years, and I’m convinced that’s what got me in.] I’d had to apply; interview; come up with the fees; find a place to live in Dublin in what was described as the worst year for rental accommodation in three decades; move out; move up; and show up for the first day of Orientation.

But they were all easy compared to sitting in front of my computer at 11.30pm on January 31st last, half an hour before the CAO [Central Applications Office; how we apply to third-level education in Ireland) deadline closed for the year. I drummed my fingers on the desktop. Was I really going to do this? Could I do this? How could I leave the apartment I loved so much? Could I really move to Dublin in just a few months? Live there by myself? Afford to? Was there any real possibility that I would even get in? I’d been thinking about it for months but when it came to down to it, I wasn’t sure. It would be easier not to do anything. With minutes to spare, I finalized my application.

And that was by far the hardest part. Making the initial decision was the most difficult thing I’d had to do. After that, all I was doing was following through.


Highlights of 2014: Champagne and Starbucks. What more does a girl want? (Thanks for the bubbly, Denise!)

Lesson number two was that rejection doesn’t mean no.

Quick recap, if you’re not familiar: I love self-publishing, and I can’t even imagine where I’d be now without it. (Not here, anyway!) But my goal has always been to get published. I don’t feel the need to justify it but if you’re wondering why, it can be summed up like this: because that’s what I want, okay? This little girl didn’t ask Santa for a typewriter because she was dreaming of seeing her book on the Kindle store after she put it there herself:


Around about the time I self-published Mousetrapped in 2010, I finished a novel, Results Not Typical. Chick-lit meets corporate satire, I called it, or The Devil Wears Prada meets WeightWatchers. It got me a meeting with the editorial director of a major publishing house, who didn’t like that book but liked me and hoped I might write something else. We met every few months for two years, but after various outlines, sample chapters and synopses, I just wasn’t coming up with the goods. With hindsight I can see that my heart just wasn’t in it. I was trying to write a book that I wouldn’t choose to read, which of course is completely and utterly insane, and insulting to books and stories and publication dreams in general.

Meanwhile I’d had an idea for a crime/thriller novel. I am OBSESSED with crime/thriller novels. They are by far and away what I predominantly read. My favorite author of all time is Michael Connelly. If I color-coordinated my bookshelves, half of them would be black. I just love, love, love a good mystery, a chilling serial killer, a twist that comes like a sudden slap in the face. As for writing them, it’s something I thought I would do when I was older, when I had more experience both in life and as a writer. But one day in the summer of 2012, fed up with my failed attempts to write women’s commercial fiction, I caught myself thinking, When this outline is done, I’m going to try and write that thriller just for fun.


Shouldn’t everything I write be for fun? Why was I doing it otherwise? I ditched all notions of writing anything except the book I wanted to read, the book I really wanted to write.

I’d love to tell you now that I banged it out in a caffeine-fueled week or something, but what followed was eighteen months of mostly procrastination. Still, the idea was percolating away in my brain, so all was not lost. By January of this year I had a long synopsis – or, ahem, an outline; tip: if your synopsis is too long, just call it an outline instead! – and the first third of the book, written and re-written to what I thought was a high standard.


Highlights of 2014: At the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards with Hazel and Elizabeth. (Photo credit: Derek Flynn.)

I have a lot of writer friends, many of them published, and two of them in particular (shout out, Sheena and Hazel!) urged me to start submitting to agents. I said no, not yet, I want to wait until I feel like it’s perfect or, at the very least, finished. Don’t be daft, they said. Are you happy with the first third? Yes? Send it out then. You’re not a novice, you have all this self-publishing stuff behind you, great contacts and you do freelance work for one of the world’s biggest publishing houses. No, no, I said. I’m not ready. I can’t do it. But they kept at me, Dr Phil-style, and finally I said, Okay, okay. I’ll start submitting.

And then anxiety started pushing its way out of my skin in the form of sweat. My heart began to race. I was genuinely scared of the idea of submitting to an agent.


Because getting published had been my dream since I realized that people actually wrote the books I loved to read. With 30,000 double-spaced words under my arm and a cover letter I’d been perfecting for months, this dream was still intact. But what if I sent it out and got nothing back but a form rejection letter? That would be devastating, a sharpened scalpel tip right into the balloon of my publication dreams. So of course, it was easier to stay in the limbo in between, where my dreams could still happen.

Making the initial decision to take action was the hardest part.


Highlight of 2014: finalizing the plot of The Novel.

But I did send it out. And it did get rejected. And I was devastated.

It was rejected by three agents. The first gave me detailed feedback, and some of it caught in my gut. I knew she was right so I rewrote it. The second one just said no (or a disinterested “Nah…” in my head). The third one said no too, in the worst possible way: I really enjoyed it, but I just don’t feel passionate enough about it to represent you. As I feel all authors deserve an agent who is passionate about their work… etc

I have a writer friend whose book launches I’ve been going to every summer for the past four years (shout out, Maria!) and who, not that long ago, went to London to meet with two agents, both of whom were desperate to represent her. They both pitched to her and then she got to pick. We first met at a writers’ workshop back in April 2009, when both of us were just dreamers. It had happened for her; I wanted it to happen – and happen that way – for me. But when the rejections started coming in, I stopped believing that it ever would.

I started thinking, Well, the best I can hope for now is an agent who’ll reluctantly take me on because, well, he’ll give it a go, and a deal with a small publisher with no distribution potential and no advance. I was downsizing. Because here’s the thing: if it was a good book, I thought, wouldn’t its goodness be universally recognized?

I finished my book over the summer and decided that my careful, one-agent-at-a-time strategy wasn’t getting me anywhere. I might never get anywhere, so what did I have to lose? I submitted it to two more agents, the agents, the agents I really wanted but had been holding back on submitting to because (a) if the agents on my next-best-thing list all said the book was a stinking pile of crap, it would need a re-write, and I didn’t want to ruin my one chance with my Dream Agents by sending them the first version (although I should say the agents I had sent it to were still brilliant, amazing, well-known agents that I would’ve been delirious to have been represented by) and (b) I thought there was no point, because they got thousands of submissions a year and took on hardly any new clients.

One of the agents was so selective that she only accepted the first ten pages of your book. Fifty is the norm. I’d no chance. I actually remember being on her website and thinking, There’s no point. It was a repeat of January 31st, drumming my fingers on the desk, thinking there was no point in applying to Trinity.


Not a highlight, but what I’m stuck with reading as my essay deadline looms. Ugh!

But I’d got into Trinity, and now I was living and studying in Dublin. Making the decision was the hardest part, remember? So I took a deep breath, submitted my ten pages and hoped for the best.

Actually, I just hoped for a response.

Both agents requested the full manuscript. And then they both offered representation, one of them even before she’d finished reading the book. I shook and squealed as I read their e-mails. And just like my friend Maria, I had a day (during my first Reading Week!) where I flew to London and met with two amazing agents and listened, slightly dumbfounded, while they pitched for me and my work.

The day before I’d got an invite to the Irish Book Awards and the day after the new Michael Connelly book came out, so that was quite the giddy week, let me tell you.

A few weeks before my London trip I was watching an episode of ITV’s Crime Thriller Club where crime writing queen Lynda La Plante was being interviewed. She said if she could give advice to aspiring writers it would be that “rejection doesn’t mean no.”

I rolled my eyes. Um, that’s EXACTLY what it means? Come on, Lynda. Aren’t you supposed to be a writer? But after my London day, I realized what she meant.

Publishing is an incredibly subjective operation. Whether or not someone likes your book depends on their personal tastes, their professional experience and even what mood they’re in when they sit down to read it. Whether or not an agent will take you on depends on all this and the level of belief they have in you, what they see in the possibility of what the book can become. Timing factors in too, of course. Maybe they just took on a similar author, or they know that a publishing house just paid five-figures for a similar book. That’s why we have these stories of Ms Author getting rejected all over town for years, and then getting an agent and going on to hit the bestseller lists.

Just because your book got rejected doesn’t mean that your publishing dreams are dead. It doesn’t even mean that you have to modify them. Rejection, as Lynda said, doesn’t mean no.

Last week I signed with Jane Gregory of Gregory & Company. Next week I’ve to hand in my first lot of university assignments. Then I start on a re-write of my novel and after that, who knows what the new year will bring? It might bring everything I want, or it might bring disappointment. I’m ready either way. I’ll keep you updated.

In the meantime, remember that making the decision to take action is by far the hardest part and that rejection doesn’t mean no. Consider this when you sit down to think about your writing goals in 2015.

In the meantime, thanks for reading in 2014, especially as life has got in the way and I’ve become so sporadic with my blogging. I hope to improve a bit in the New Year!

Wishing you and yours a fabulous Christmas and a New Year that brings everything you want.

Catherine x

(Fun fact: this blog post is the exact length each of my four essays has to be. Procrastinating much?)

11 Inspiring Quotes from the World’s Best Writers

The last time we had a guest post from Laura Pepper Wu (11 Signs You’re Meant To Be A Writer), things went a bit nuts, with her post getting nearly 100 comments and being shared nearly 200 and over 400 times on Twitter and Facebook respectively. Today she’s back to share news of her new app, Write On! Daily Kick-Ass Writing Inspiration: 365 Tips & Quotes from the World’s Best Writers, and 11 of her favorite such quotes for those self-doubt-filled, motivation-lacking, no-amount-of-coffee-can-get-this-going bad writing days. Welcome back, Laura!

‘Having a bad writing day? Read (and bookmark!) these 11 quotes.

We all have ‘em once in while – awful, dragging, low writing-motivation days. The last thing you want to do is open up that folder on your computer, the one marked ‘WIP’.

You're a writer

Sometimes it helps to know you’re not alone (you’re definitely not), and that this too shall pass (especially with a glass of wine or two). For me, it always helps to read words of wisdom from an admirable writer too. Here’s a collection of my favorites taken from the new app Write On! Daily Kick-Ass Writing Inspiration 365 Tips & Quotes from the World’s Best Writers.

1. “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” – Jodi Picoult

Take the pressure off yourself by focusing on simply getting some words onto the page and not worrying whether the result is good or bad. The refining and shaping can come later.

2. “A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor.” – Author Unknown

Know that writing is not meant to be all butterflies and rainbows, and that sometimes the crappy days are what make you a stronger writer!


A screenshot from Laura’s new app

3. “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” – Richard Bach

Choose to go pro, and know that a big part of that is not allowing yourself to give up.

4. “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” – Ernest Hemingway

If things are really bad, aim to write just one good sentence. Not only is it better than a hundred bad sentences, it might also give you the encouragement to write more.

5. “Asking “Why?” can lead to understanding. Asking “Why not?” can lead to breakthroughs.” – Daniel Pink

If you feel stuck with a chapter, section, or storyline, think about the problem in another way. Turn the question upside down and you might just have the breakthrough you need!

6. “Alternating the thoughtful task of writing with the mindless work of laundry or dish washing will give you the breaks you need for new ideas and insights to occur. If you don’t know what comes next in the story… clean your toilet. Change the bed sheets. For Christ sakes, dust the computer. A better idea will come.” – Chuck Palahniuk

I’ve found this over and over again; doing something mindless (but somewhat productive), allows me to tap into a different part of the brain that comes up with ideas. Now I’m no neuroscientist, so I can’t tell you why, but I do know that this works. Exercise, especially stretching, seems to have the same effect. Try it!


7. “I find it hard to start writing in the morning; but the dejection lasts only 30 minutes, and once I start I forget all about it. – Virginia Woolf

If you don’t feel like getting started, commit to just 30 minutes (or 15, or even 3), and more than likely you’ll keep going past that mark. The hardest part is often just getting started, but once you’ve started you’ll find that you might as well just keep going!

8. “To feed your muse… you must still take long walks around your city or town, or walks in the country by day. And long walks, at any time, through bookstores and libraries.” – Ray Bradbury

Take a hike! I have my best ideas while walking the dog, and frequently have to hurry home to get them onto paper. There’s something about being out in nature, or being inspired by people and objects around us that can trigger new ideas and motivation. Plus, the act of moving forwards can extend onto the page. When in doubt, take a walk and you’ll get back to your desk refreshed.

9. “It’s no secret that the best place to write, in my opinion, is in a café. You don’t have to make your own coffee, you don’t have to feel like you’re in solitary confinement and if you have writers block, you can get up and walk to the next café while giving your batteries time to recharge and brain time to think.” – J.K. Rowling

Get thee to a cafe! (Catherine will no doubt agree with this suggestion to go get caffeinated…)

10. “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! – William Faulkner

Feed yourself a diet of books, and you’ll probably see that it helps improve your writing. If the writing isn’t happening, I never feel guilty for opening up a book and reading a chapter or two. After all we’ve got to remember why we’re doing this in the first place!

11. “The story I am writing exists, written in absolutely perfect fashion, some place, in the air. All I must do is find it, and copy it.”- Jules Renard

Take the pressure off yourself by imagining that you’re simply a conduit, conducting your story from the air and onto the page. Somehow telling myself this takes the pressure off, and I get out of my own way and let the words fall onto the page. Interestingly, the Grammy-award winning artist Pharrell believes that all his work is created this way, and if it’s good enough for him, it’s definitely good enough for me!

Over to you… Have a favorite quote that helps you get through the bad writing days? Leave a comment, I’d love to hear it!’

LauraPW-Headshot-CroppedLaura Pepper Wu is the founder and editor of The Write Life Magazine and 30 Day Books. Write On! is her newest app. Each day you’ll get an inspirational or instructional quote from one of the world’s best writers. It’s available for $0.99 (for a limited time) in the Apple App Store here.

Copy-editors: What They Really Do

Today we have a guest post from editor Robert Doran, whose previous guest posts on the subject of all things editing —Structural Editing for Self-Publishers and Why Hire An Editor? — were exceedingly popular. Today he’s explaining exactly what it is copy-editors do, and he’ll be back on Thursday to tell us all about proofreading. Welcome back to Catherine. Caffeinated, Robert! Take it away…

“People often think that if you can write you can edit – and vice versa. But writing and editing are very different skills, and competency in one doesn’t guarantee ability in the other. The creative impulse that often drives the author should be largely absent in the copy-editor, who is tasked with problem-solving and who essentially approaches the text as a puzzle. Happily, the editor’s eye for detail complements the author’s creativity, and when they are combined successfully you end up with something great.

Many self-publishers decide not to hire a copy-editor because of the cost involved and because they don’t fully understand what a copy-edit can do for their work. The thinking generally goes, I’m not paying someone to correct a few typos and to get rid of the passive voice. The truth is that you’re paying for a great deal more than that, and we’ll examine the specifics of where your money goes in a moment. First and foremost, what you get out of a copy-edit is a degree of confidence that your book is technically sound, that it does what you intended it to do, and that it comes up to the basic standards expected of published work.


In broad terms, the copy-editor must ensure that the author’s words are true to the intended message. One of the reasons why it is so difficult to copy-edit your own work is that the message is already clear in your head. You know your intention before you review what you’ve written, and that makes it easy to make assumptions and difficult to affect the detachment necessary to edit. The reader, on the other hand, relies solely on your words, so they need to be the right words, organised in the correct manner, if you are to communicate your message effectively. Enter the copy-editor!

A copy-editor brings a fresh perspective to your work. They will see the words, the sentences and the paragraphs for what they are and will tally them with what you want them to mean. Of course they will correct typos and remove the passive voice in places. But they also understand that the passive voice isn’t always bad, that split infinitives are usually fine and that the odd cliché never hurt anyone. The intention is never to make your writing generic but to allow it to shine by selectively applying rules and consistently applying style.

So, let’s look in more detail at what your friendly copy-editor can do for you.


This is the Holy Grail for copy-editors, and rightly so. In English you are often presented with two or more correct options, and you must choose one and stick to it religiously. For example, if you use ‘okay’ in Chapter 1, you shouldn’t use ‘OK’ in Chapter 6; ‘seventies’ shouldn’t suddenly become ‘70s’, and you can’t jump back and forth between ‘dramatise’ and ‘dramatize’. Copy-editors create a style sheet specific to your book, detailing the decisions that they make on spelling, punctuation, capitalisation, presentation of dates and numbers, etc. That style sheet can then be passed on to the typesetter and proofreader to ensure consistency and make everyone’s life easier. Yay!


Repetition comes in many different forms, most of them evil! Political rhetoric can stand a little repetition, but if you’re reading this I’m guessing your aim is not to write political speeches. Sometimes an author will deliberately repeat something to emphasise a point, not realising that most often the effect is to undermine rather than to underline. Most repetition, however, is unintentional. It can occur pages or chapters apart or it can even be contained within the same phrase (‘each individual person’, ‘various different’). If you use ‘wonderful’ five times in five paragraphs it sounds lazy and unprofessional; if you use the same words to describe a room twice in two chapters it sounds lazy and patronising. A copy-editor should also pick up on hidden repetition, such as explaining the content of dialogue when the message is already clearly conveyed in your characters’ words.


We all have words and phrases that we fall back on and use too frequently. Chief offenders are the meaningless little tags we add to sentences without even thinking, e.g., ‘basically’, ‘to be honest’, ‘let me begin by saying’, ‘at this point in time’. Buzzwords and jargon are also often overused. The effect can be to smother the meaning of your message and to leave your reader wondering if you know what point you’re trying to make.


We don’t always write exactly what we mean, and we don’t always mean what we write. Sometimes this can be as simple as a misplaced comma (‘Let’s eat Grandma’ is an entirely different proposition from ‘Let’s eat, Grandma’) or an adverb gone slightly astray (‘The road needs to be resurfaced badly’ is not the same as ‘The road badly needs to be resurfaced’).

Grammar and usage

There’s no short cut to good grammar: you just have to learn it, remember it and then apply it to your writing. But not always! There is an element of judgement involved here. Making a valiant stand against misguided prescriptivism, Winston Churchill (apparently) said, ‘This is the sort of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put!’ And he was right: sometimes your message is best served by a bent or broken rule. But be careful! You have to know the rules before you can break them with any confidence, and a copy-editor will be sensitive to just how far you should push it.


Obviously your copy-editor will look for typos, but I’m also going to shoehorn homophones (words that are pronounced the same but spelled differently) into this category. ‘Complement’ and ‘compliment’; ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’; ‘principal’ and ‘principle’; and ‘bare’ and ‘bear’ are all embarrassingly easy to overlook. A good copy-editor will seek out and destroy these. They will also make sure that foreign words are italicised and accented correctly and that hyphenation is correct and consistent.


Apart from the never-ending comma debate, you would think that most punctuation is fairly straightforward. But time and time again it turns up as a huge issue, especially when it comes to dialogue. I can honestly say I’ve never come across a manuscript with dialogue that has been punctuated consistently. I’ll give this topic a blog post all of its own very soon [Catherine: ooh, goody!] because it’s not optional, and it’s not OK to get it wrong, even if you get it wrong consistently. Copy-editors know these rules inside out. They also know that you shouldn’t use more than a single exclamation mark at a time and that even one should be used sparingly. F. Scott Fitzgerald said they are the equivalent of laughing at your own joke, and I tend to agree. If you’re in the habit of pairing exclamation marks with question marks you will be politely but firmly told to quit. [Catherine: But I love them?!]

Factual accuracy

Copy-editors are not researchers, but they will check dates, names, places, periods and the like so that fact and fiction tally. They will point out that your Victorian heroine couldn’t have taken antibiotics and that your hero was not in Zimbabwe in 1978 because the country was called Rhodesia at the time. If the Edwardian house your character lives in was built 200 years ago, it cannot in fact be an Edwardian house.


Most copy-editors have a basic understanding of libel law. They can’t guarantee that you won’t be sued, but they will flag anything that should be run past a lawyer. This is important not only for non-fiction authors, but also for writers of fiction, who often mention real people and events as well. If any of your characters are identifiable as real people, you need to be sure you’re not saying anything that will result in a costly court appearance.


Your copy-editor will rephrase ungrammatical or awkward sentences as a matter of course, but you will have to discuss with them exactly how much beyond this you want them to intervene. Some authors want minimal intervention so that their style is preserved, whereas others are happy to have a copy-editor make changes when it adds to the clarity, flow or readability of the text. The level of editing is always up to you as the author, but it’s worth remembering that Word’s Track Changes function allows you to reject a change with a single click, so an editor’s input is never anything more than a suggestion.

Copy-editing is more than correcting typos, and it’s also more than the sum of what I have detailed above. It will leave your prose clearer, more engaging and more readable, and to my mind it isn’t optional for any published work. Just to prove that I practise what I preach, I’ll share with you the fact that this very blog post was copy-edited by Liz Hudson of the www.littleredpen.com, because I know better than to think my writing can’t be improved!”

Robert Doran works as a freelance editor and is Editorial Director at Kazoo Independent Publishing Services (www.kazoopublishing.com), a one-stop shop for indie authors who want to publish industry-standard books. He has nearly twenty years’ experience in bringing books to market and has worked as an editor, project manager, sales manager, and bookseller in Ireland and in the UK. He is a big fan of the Oxford comma. Follow him on Twitter @RobertEdits or visit www.robert-edits.com .

A note from Catherine: please do not make the mistake of thinking that American English is the only English there is. Thanks.

How Much Time Do You Need To Write?

In a few weeks’ time I’ll temporarily relocate to a lovely apartment in the south of France, making it three years in a row that I’ve done that, and I’ll try to complete my novel while I’m there, making it three years in a row that I’ve done that too


The key word there is try. Why can’t I just finish this damn book?

In my defence, things are quite hectic in Catherineland. (But then people with far more hectic lives than me write books all the time.) And it hasn’t been the same novel for the last three years. (But it was the same novel this time last year.) And some progress has been made. (A messy ‘discovery’ draft completed, but what since then? You finished that at the end of July, for feck’s sake!)

Time is definitely a major factor—and I don’t mean a lack of it (because we all know you can make time for anything when you really want to) but more so, how much of it I need to write anything at all. I can’t remember who said it but years ago I heard an author say, ‘I need the whole day to write for an hour, the whole week to write for a day…’ (possible paraphrase alert) and I totally understood what she meant. It might only take me an hour to write a thousand words, but in order to write those thousand words, I need to feel as if I have the whole day, or at least a great big chunk of it. I’ve never been one of these writers who can get up an hour earlier and cheerfully bang out ten pages before work. My process is more like bang out a few paragraphs, swim around in them for a few hours, tinkering and changing and rearranging, bang out a couple more, repeat as required.

I know a writer who sits down at her desk and just writes, one word after the other, sentence by sentence, never looking back or even having to look back, until a perfectly coherent draft is completed. She immediately whisks it off to her editor, and the edits are always little polishes, never major reconstruction. To me, this sounds like voodoo. HOW IS SHE DOING THIS?!

My method, on the other hand, is very circular. That’s the only way I can explain it, and perhaps it’s not the best explanation. But although I know what has to happen in each chapter, I don’t know how I’m going to write about how it happened. I have all the words, and the facts, and I scribble down all of them onto the virtual page, and then I mess around with them for hours on end, seeing where they go, changing where they went, moving that line from the middle to the end, etc. etc. I’m constantly coming back to the start of the chapter to start again, afresh, until I’m somewhat satisfied with it. Only then do I move on. As I said above, I swim around in my chapters rather than write them from start to finish.

Is this normal? I’m starting to doubt it. But then is there any ‘normal’ way to write?

A few years I happened upon a documentary about John Banville that, quite honestly, made me want to throw things. In a scene set in his writing room, he introduced the audience to his writing process. It begins with him sitting at a desk, writing in longhand until he has perfected a sentence. This could and apparently does take all day. Then, when he has a perfect sentence, he turns to a second desk that’s at a right angle to the first and types that sentence into the MS Word document of his novel’s manuscript. Then the process begins again.

Now maybe that’s why Banville has won the Booker, may win the Nobel Prize and writes lines like the past beats inside me like a second heart, while I can’t kick an adverb habit or even finish my novel, but I just can’t fathom spending this much time dwelling on single lines.

Tell me: how much time do you need to write? What’s your process? How many words do you get done on an average day? And could you even imagine writing your book the Banville way?

Now Showing: Writers Web TV

If you’re writing for children or young adults, be beside your computer on 28th September for the launch of WritersWebTV.com: top-class, online free-to-watch-live writing workshops (and they are broadcast from Ireland!). Upcoming courses include: Getting to the Heart of it: Writing Women’s Fiction on Tuesday, October 15th, Crime Pays: Writing Crime Fiction on Wednesday, October 30th, and Getting Published on Saturday, November 9th. 


Getting Published will cover trade publishing but also Hazel Gaynor will be discussing how she created her own opportunities to land a US agent and a trade deal for her book after self publishing The Girl Who Came Home. The workshops are perfect for anyone trying to cram writing in around the rest of their life as you can don’t even have to get out of bed to watch them live, and can download to watch them back if you missed bits (so you can just enjoy them – no need to take masses of notes!)

Featuring Irish and international best-selling writers and industry professionals, these workshops are aimed at new and aspiring authors from all backgrounds and genres. Led by Vanessa O’Loughlin, founder of writing.ie, the panel will cover the key elements of fiction writing at every workshop, and give you with tips and advice to help you polish your writing and get it on the path to publication. As Irish Adviser to the Alliance of Independent Authors, and an independent author herself, Vanessa has experience in trade and self publishing and understands the challenges of both. She says, “My aim has always been to get writers published, whether that’s through self publishing or trade publishing – and often self publishing is a better route for a particular book – for all the reasons you chose to self publish Mousetrapped – writers need readers and reaching those readers and delivering the best quality product is the goal.”

The first workshop Writing for Children and Young Adults will run on Saturday, September 28th 10am-4.30pm (Dublin time) with picture book authors & illustrators Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick and Michael Emberley; Emmy award winning director Norton Virgien of Brown Bag Films, and Literary Agent Polly Nolan. They will be joined by international bestselling YA authors Meg Rosoff – whose film of How I Live Now is out in the next few weeks – and Oisín McGann, all giving their sage advice and talking the viewers through the colourful world of children’s and YA fiction.

You can watch the workshops for free when you watch them live and can talk to the experts the studio using Twitter, Facebook or email. You can also take part in each workshop exercise and get on-screen feedback. If you want to download a workshop or watch it later, you can pay to keep the course.

The shows are streamed from a multi-camera broadcast studio, complete with an in-studio audience of aspiring writers who will present some of their work for critique by the best-selling authors. Led by Vanessa O’Loughlin, founder of writing.ie, the panel will cover the key elements of fiction writing at every workshop, and furnish you with tips and advice to help you polish your writing and get it on the path to publication.

Vanessa told me “In this workshop we’re bringing together all the threads of children’s writing to give writers a really intensive workshop that will give them the inside track on the whole industry. Even if you’ve never thought about writing a picture book, the story telling techniques that Maire Louise and Michael bring will make you think about your own work in a whole new way. And [Literary Agent] Polly will be answering as many questions as she can. For anyone keen to get their book to the top of the Amazon chart, she’ll be explaining a whole range of essentials that create bestsellers in trade publishing. The key to writing, whatever your route to publication, is to make your book the best that it can be, and the best way to do that, is to learn from the experts. It has to be said that in the almost ten years I’ve been running workshops, I’ve never run one with quite as many moving parts as this one – a full camera crew, a gang of people working social media and if the pilot was anything to go by, there will be a LOT of people watching, but the best thing is that we have great fun on set and the level of expert knowledge imparted is incredible. Often it’s the questions from the audience or from home that spark a great debate, and the interactive nature of Writers Web TV means that we can target our answers to cover much more than a normal workshop.”

Find out more at www.writerswebtv.com, and sign up for notifications or enroll for the course, email us at info@writerswebtv.com or get in touch through Facebook or @writerswebtv.

And if you’re in Dublin and interested in self-publishing, I’m at the Irish Writers’ Centre on October 12th.

11 Signs You’re Meant To Be A Writer

Yes, things have been a little quiet around here lately, but that’s only because, first of all, I was so busy there for a few weeks that I couldn’t even think straight and then, second of all, once the busyness was over, I awarded myself a whole day off—I didn’t even check my e-mails—and instead curled up with Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother, and that felt so good that I gave myself another day off, and then I started feeling light-headed and strange and had to come back here (here being The Desk), and get back to work. So while I play catch-up with the 391 e-mails from people who still don’t seem to understand that I don’t review books, my lovely blogging friend Laura Pepper Wu is going to entertain you with a guest post I’m sure we can all relate to: 11 Signs You’re Meant To Be A Writer. And let’s play a little game: leave the number of things that apply to you in the comments. Welcome, Laura!

laura‘Since you are reading Catherine’s blog, you’ve no doubt accepted by now that you’re a writer. But just in case you haven’t or if you’ve been having doubts of late, here are 11 signs that you truly are meant to be writing – and always have been!

1. You bust out long emails without even flinching, and even your signature is like a paragraph long. Sometimes you start an email with the words “In a bit of a rush, so just a quick reply,” and still manage to bang out enough text for a Kindle Singles essay.

2. You’re the person who buys 10 postcards on holiday and actually delights in writing them. Oh, and each one has a different story on it, because writing the same thing to all 10 of your friends would feel like cheating.

3. You’ve dreamed of sitting in front of a typewriter/ computer and pouring your heart out on to it ever since you can remember. Whether your first inspiration was Clark Kent working at the fast-paced Daily Planet, or Carrie Bradshaw staring longingly out of her window in her knickers and a pair of sparkly earrings, you’ve wanted to do that forever.

4. You work your thoughts out better with a pen and paper than discussing the situation through verbally. If you’re trying to make a decision, make sense of something, or plan ahead for the weekend, it’s that trusty notebook and pen that you make a grab for first.

5. Staying home on a Friday night with a glass of wine and a good book sounds pretty much like you died and went to heaven.

6. You read the back of cereal packets and think about what you would write in place of the current copy (and think to yourself how you’d do a much better job at it).

7. You’re able to articulate and get your point across far better with written words than over the phone. Whenever you’re given a customer service number, your first question is, “is there an email address I can use?”

8. You’ve actually Googled “Can I expense coffee/ tea?” before.

Laura's newest venture, The Write Life magazine.

Laura’s newest venture, The Write Life magazine.

9. You read everything you can get your hands on, including the free leaflets from the supermarket or the book of coupons from the drug store.

10. You can’t walk past a stationery shop without popping in, “just to have a look.”

11. While you couldn’t give a hoot about playing Monopoly or Settlers of Catan, put a box of Scrabble or Scattegories in front of you and you suddenly get very competitive. That dinner party just got way more interesting.

How many did you nod your head along to? Many of us have wondered at one point or another what we need to do or achieve before we can legitimately call ourselves “a writer.” If that sounds remotely like you, stop that. If you truly love writing you probably know it and you always have, and that’s the only permission you need. Okay?’

Thanks, Laura! My number is 8, and it’ll be 9 in a minute after I Google “Can I expense coffee?”. My favorite part of Sex and the City was when Carrie sat at her little desk to write, but alas, my reality of this involves sweatpants, a tiny box room and a view of suburbia. Oh, well. 

Laura Pepper Wu is a writer and the editor for The Write Life Magazine: a lifestyle magazine for those of us who write. Check it out at TheWriteLifeMagazine.com. Laura is also the founder of Ladies Who Critique and 30 Day Books. Outside of her many writing-related ventures, she spends her time walking her spoiled dog in rainy Seattle, checking out local coffee shops, and learning (quite hopelessly) how to sing jazz. Connect with Laura on Twitter @laurapepwu.