So You Want To Write a Novel…

This hilarious video stars an aspiring writer who having quit his job, bought a new laptop and completed one page of his “fiction novel” is now hell bent on making every mistake in the How Not To Get Published book: mass e-mailing agents, copyrighting his submission and thinking editors will fix his spelling (because that’s what they do, right?).

Not even never having read a book isn’t going to stop him from realizing his publishing dreams – after all, he has “seen all of the Harry Potter movies” – and he’s confident that his “science fiction crossed with chick lit crossed with literary fiction” idea will earn him six figures and a movie deal.

Um, oh-kay then…

I, for one, love these writers. I utterly adore them, and hope their number ever grows. Why? Because they make the odds so much better for the rest of us – us who are sane, read books and can spell.

As his friend says, “I assumed you’ve used a steak knife, right? So do you think you’re qualified to perform neurosurgery?”

The video was created by David of The Corner.

Wannabe a Writer We’ve Heard Of? Then Read This

Writing a book is no small feat. It’s really, really, really hard. A hundred thousand words one sentence at a time, each page speckled with blood, sweat, tears and intersecting coffee rings. You can’t sleep at night because your head is so full of ideas, and then you can’t stay awake long enough during the day to get those ideas down. Should you ever manage to finish your opus, you can’t spare a moment to relax, because now you must edit your book until it makes enough sense for other people to read it, condense the entire story down to a 500-word synopsis, hunt for an agent or a publisher in the face of astronomically bad odds and, if you’re lucky enough to jump all those hurdles, go back and work on your book again. Then there’s page proofs, deciding who to leave out of the acknowledgements, drastic dieting for the book launch…etc. etc. The list goes on.

And those are just the easy bits. After all that, you have to get out there and convince people to buy it. But how?

Enter Jane Wenham-Jones’ new book, Wannabe a Writer We’ve Heard Of?, the follow up to her fantabulous Wannabe a Writer? which I named my Number One How To Write a Book Book Ever back in February. (Jane is still reeling from receiving such an amazing honor…)

“An essential read for every author, whether established or debut, self-published or still dreaming of the limelight. In today’s celebrity-driven world, self-confessed media tart Jane Wenham-Jones takes us on an uproarious ride along the publicity trail from getting the perfect promotional photo to choosing clothes to wear on TV. With anecdotes from Jane’s own numerous media exploits, Wannabe a Writer We’ve Heard Of? is packed with tips and tricks to help you get yourself noticed, gain maximum column inches and airtime and create online buzz for your books and projects. Offering advice and insights from writers, journalists, publicists and celebrities who’ve been there and done that, this is the ultimate guide for anyone longing for fame and success.”

Like all Jane’s writing, this book is hilarious and great fun to read. But more importantly its filled to the rafters – or page edges – with ideas, tips, tricks and advice on (i) how to let people know that you exist and (ii) somehow convince them that their lives will remain incomplete unless they purchase at least one copy of your book. It covers everything from what I consider to be the bare minimum in terms of writerly self-promotion (blogging, tweeting, book-launch-party-having) to sweet-talking your way onto TV and radio shows, and offering your news-worthy opinions to every newspaper and magazine in the country as a way to plug your book. It also has advice from authors, booksellers, editors and agents –  including (drum roll, please) little old me.

Here’s what I like most about this book: it’s realistic. This is what you have to do – at the very least – to shift copies of your books from the shelves. As Jane points out herself in the book’s introduction, you might wonder if you want to buy a book about becoming a writer people have heard of that’s written by a writer you yourself might not have heard of. (‘I know what you’re thinking,’ Jane writes. ‘Jane Wenham-Jones, I hear you snort. I haven’t heard of her. Maybe not. But look at it this way, dear reader. You have now…’ Exactly!) But would you bother reading self-promotion advice shared by the likes of Dan Brown, Stephen King, Stephanie Meyer or J.K. Rowling? I know I wouldn’t, because they don’t have to do any! It’s the “mid-list” authors whose books sell well but work to move each copy that we should be listening to, because they’re the ones who have to work at it and, clearly, their efforts are highly effective.

Jane practices what she preaches – seize every promotional opportunity, however how small – and so said yes to me when I asked her to answer a few short questions for us:

Me: What motivated you to write Wannabe a Writer We’ve Heard Of?

Jane: It seemed a natural progression from the first tome Wannabe a Writer? because I sometimes do feel these days that writing the damn book is the least of it! Also I like to get maximum mileage out of everything I do. Over the course of  three novels, hundreds of short stories and what feels like about a thousand columns of varying quality, I’ve written about pretty much everything that’s ever happened to me but there was still some over. What was I going to do with the stranger anecdotes – like the time I had to shave my legs on camera, stood on a box at speakers corner or bought the wrong potatoes?

M:What’s the key to being an effective media tart?

J: Be brave and bold. Remember that its not very nice if someone says NO but you won’t die from it.

M: What have you found to be the three most effective things you can do to promote your book?

J: Newspaper articles, radio interviews and getting others talking about it online.

M: What in your opinion should you definitely NOT do?

J: Be boring, bang on about it endlessly on Twitter, begin every sentence with “When I wrote my THIRD novel…”

M: Can you just remind us, as you’re here, which contributor appeared the most times in the index? [Cough, cough]

J: Ah, who was it now? Irish girl, name escapes me… she writes a decent blog – bit of a self-publishing guru… knows how to promote herself… taught me a thing or two. It will come to me… 🙂

Visit Jane’s website or follow her on Twitter for more writerly advice.

Treat yourself to an early Christmas present: order Wannabe a Writer We’ve Heard Of? from The Book Depository for just €4.01/£3.49 (a whopping 65% off) with free shipping worldwide. Irish customers get an extra 10% off (for some unknown reason!) until December 17th. Click on this link to avail of the discount.

What I Thought Of… THE DEMON IN THE FREEZER by Richard Preston

I first encountered Richard Preston in 1995, when I picked up his fantastic book The Hot Zone. The thrilling true story of an outbreak of the lethal Ebola virus in Reston, Virginia in 1989, it convinced me to become a virologist and gave me something to write about in the opening chapter of my book, Mousetrapped. (Spoiler alert: I ain’t a virologist.) While in the meantime I’ve read some of Preston’s other books, it’s only now – fifteen years later – that I’ve finally got around to reading what is essentially The Hot Zone Part II, The Demon in the Freezer.

“In one of the greatest feats in modern science, the devastating small pox virus, the worst disease in human history, was purged from the planet in 1979. In the interests of research, two stores were kept: one at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and one at a Russian virology institute. But the demon in the freezer has been set loose. Iraq and North Korea are almost certainly hiding illegal stocks of the virus. Now Richard Preston relates in fascinating detail the story of the eradication of smallpox, and introduces us to some of the most sophisticated scientific minds in America, past and present. On the front lines of the fight to protect the civilian population against biological weapons is virologist Peter Jarhling. He is leading a team of scientists in controversial – and successful – experiments with live smallpox, reawakening the virus at the CDC, and seeking  to find a cure for the disease. The moving story of his trials and triumphs, set against the backdrop of the virus’s history, frame Preston’s cutting analysis of the future of our nation’s biodefense.”

There are whole sections of bookshops filled with titles claiming to be “popular science” that a layperson would find only ever so slightly less nonsensical than a scientific paper in the Lancet. But Preston truly makes science popular – he takes complicated ideas, experiments and events and makes them not only easy to understand, but as fascinating as any exposé and as taunt as any thriller. Many of his books have stemmed from articles he wrote for The New Yorker – including The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer – and as with all his titles, he offers you a story that would have otherwise slipped unnoticed behind the headlines.

Just as Jarhling and his team are “awakening” smallpox stocks in a maximum security lab at the CDC, terror hits America. On 11th September 2001, virologists in biohazard suits are informed of the situation through a series of handwritten notes, as the air circulation system inside their helmets make hearing difficult. The first says, ‘A plane crashed into the World Trade Center.’ The second says, ‘Another plane crashed into WTC.’ Then, ‘Pentagon – plane down in PA.’ An order comes through telling them to evacuate; the bio-safety labs in the heart of the CDC campus are hot with live smallpox virus and thus the ideal terrorist target. They hurry to make their experiments safe and leave the lab in some kind of order, until another message is relayed: initiate emergency procedures.

This basically translates into get the hell of there now.

A week later, five letters are mailed from Trenton, New Jersey. They are addressed to the offices of ABC News, CBS News, NBC News and the New York Post, all in New York City, and the National Enquirer, based in Florida. On October 9, two more letters are sent, both to US Senators. Each envelope contains spores of anthrax mixed with fine silica (glass) which helped it escape from the seal envelopes, putting not only the recipients at risk, but all the postal workers who handled it en route. It’s attack that will eventually infect 22 and kill 5, and USAMRIID’s facilities and scientists are the powerhouse of the ensuing investigation, dubbed “Amerithrax” by the FBI.

Because while an epidemic of smallpox may be a thing of the past, its use in a terrorist attack is very much a possibility in our future.

One of the most chilling things about this story is not even in the book, as it came to light almost five years after its publication in 2003. For all his talent, Preston simply couldn’t have imagined the twists and turns the investigation would take in the months and years after he wrote “The End.”

Dr. Bruce Edwards Ivins was a senior bio-defense analyst working at USAMRIID who held two patents for anthrax vaccine technology.  He was also a recovering alcoholic who had struggled with depression, and some friends and colleagues had been privy to a spectrum of behavior that ranged from amusingly oddball (eating a mixture of tuna, peas and yogurt from lunch) to darkly inappropriate (Ivins, for instance, was obsessed with a US sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma. He once edited the society’s Wikipedia page, added derogatory remarks). In 2004, he sent friends a Christmas card that was an electron microscope image of anthrax spores arranged to form the words “Happy Holidays” and in 2001, while everyone at Fort Detrick – including Ivins – was working round the clock to assist the FBI with their investigation, he emailed photographs of himself handling the infamous samples to his family, friends and colleagues, including an FBI agent who was working on the case. One of the recipients noticed that Ivins wasn’t wearing gloves in the pictures, and was suddenly struck by a horrible thought: Bruce did it. He’s behind the anthrax attacks. The FBI shifted the focus of their investigation onto Ivins, and were soon inclined to agree.

But in 2008, just before charges were due to be brought against him, Dr. Ivins committed suicide. Later that same year the FBI declared the case closed, although many of Ivin’s friends and colleagues contest the belief that the troubled doctor was guilty.

The postscript gets even more complicated. Another USAMRIID employee, Dr. Steven Hatfill, become a “person of interest” to the FBI in 2002, following an invasive “trial by media” and a concerted effort by a small group in the medical community to sully his name. Dr. Hatfill would settle a $5 million lawsuit with the Justice Department in 2008, but his career lays in ruins.

If you were Mr. Preston’s editor, wouldn’t you be raising the idea of an updated edition…? I know I would.

The Demon in the Freezer both enthralled and terrified me, but it also had me feeling a little nostalgic for a time – a simpler, more naive time – when I thought that by now I’d have a PhD in virology, a job at USAMRIID or the CDC and plenty of material for volume one of my virologist memoirs. (And that the queasiness that prevents me from dissecting dead monkeys could be overcome somehow. It was just a minor detail.) There’s still something that draws me into the subject like no other, except for maybe space. In fact, were I offered three wishes right now, they would be:

  1. A book deal
  2. A guided tour of the original Mission Control Center in Houston, where the Apollo missions took place
  3. A guided tour of the Biosafety Level 4 labs at USAMRIID. I know I couldn’t go in, but apparently you can look into some of the labs through windows. And they let Preston in, didn’t they?

But I know that it wasn’t so much the virology that attracted me, but the shine of doing something out of the ordinary.

And it’s not too late for that. Back to that novel…

Click here to purchase The Demon in the Freezer from Amazon.co.uk.

Click here to visit Richard Preston’s website.

Author Catherine Ryan Hyde Talks Virtual Book Tours

My same two names/three initials writerly friend Catherine Ryan Hyde has posted this great video blog about virtual book tours, how they are the modern day version of “hand-selling” (getting out there and meeting the people who can sell your books for you through recommendations, word of mouth, interviews, etc.) and how she used them to promote her latest book, Jumpstart the World.

Virtual book tours or blog tours are a great way to spread the word about your book (and reward your blogger friends with free copies of it – hooray!) without spending a fortune. As all blogs have different followings, this can also introduce you to a whole new weird and wonderful readership and, as Catherine points out, it beats driving through a snowstorm to a cold bookshop where two people are waiting for you, and one of them has the wrong day.

On this side of the pond Catherine is perhaps best known as the author of the book Pay It Forward (later made into a Hollywood movie) and for the Richard and Judy Book Club pick, Love in the Present Tense. Her latest is the fantastic  Second Hand Heart, which I reviewed as part of the Transworld Summer Reading Challenge back in August.

You can also follow the lovely Catherine on Twitter here.

Get Your MS Read by an Editor AND Support a Good Cause

To help raise funds for the High Court appeal of Paul Chambers – a UK man charged with and found guilty of menace for posting a joke on TwitterScott Pack is offering you the opportunity to have your manuscript read in full by a proper editor. (That’s him, by the way. He runs the Harper Collins imprint, The Friday Project.)

He says:

“I am auctioning the chance to have your unpublished manuscript read, in full, by me. I will write up a detailed report outlining my editorial advice and tips for making the work more attractive to publishers and agents. I will tell you what is good and what is shite. I will do everything I can to help you make your manuscript as good as possible. Hell, if it is really good I might even publish it myself (just don’t bloody well bank on it). Might be the perfect way to round off NaNoWriMo or whatever it is called. I’ll be doing this in my own time and it isn’t official HarperCollins or Friday Project business but I will do a thorough job. You will not be disappointed.”

I believe the bidding is currently around £200, which is buttons considering how much you would pay a professional editing service to give you the same kind of feedback on a full-length book. Help your writing career AND a good cause, and pop over to Scott’s blog for more information. Bidding closes on Friday afternoon.

Good luck!

An Online Platform: What’s it all for if you’ve no time to write?

Nowadays writers tend to stake out a spot in one of three camps: those who enthusiastically embrace social media, using it communicate with readers and fellow writers, raise their profiles and yes, sell books; those who think writers should be neither seen nor heard and look upon putting yourself out there as distasteful self-promotion; and those who are somewhere in between, perhaps successful published writers wanting to get into Twitter or blogging because someone told them it would be a good idea, but not sure where to start.

I, obviously, fall into the first category. If I’d been born ten years earlier, not only would I be freaking out about now but I wouldn’t have been able to do any of what I’ve achieved in the last year. (I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I’d be born even five years earlier.) But now I’m running into a problem, a problem which is at the crux of this whole writer-blogger-tweeter-Facebooker existence. My online presence has given my writing career a great foundation – or at least, I think it has – but the time it takes to keep it up is eating into the time I should be devoting to my Work in Progress, the same WIP that if unfinished, makes this whole author platform thing null, void and utterly useless.

I find it so difficult to compartmentalize my time. While someone else might be able to say, okay, 9am-10am is devoted to all things online and then I’ll write for three hours, I would log on sometime after nine and re-emerge in early afternoon. I could, of course, virtually unplug, but it’s not so much that the internet is a distraction for me – I worry that the “following” I’ve established will abandon me when the space where I used to pop up on their Google Reader or wherever grows dark and sprouts cobwebs.

It’s a constant struggle. Right now I’m writing during the day and writing blog posts – such as this one – in front of the TV at night.

(So if I suddenly start talking about The Apprentice or I’m a Celebrity, you’ll know why.)

Sometimes a tiny little part of me wishes I could go back to the days when no one but my friends and family knew who I was, and even they didn’t know I was writing a book. Back then I could disappear for eight weeks and be under no pressure to produce as much as an e-mail. But almost as soon as I begin to think this, I realize what utter crap I’m on about it and thank my lucky stars anyone is aware of my existence at all…!

What do YOU do to balance your writing time with your online time? Any tips?

Handle with Care: My Book Rules

Before today’s post, a little public service (or lack thereof) announcement: I know I haven’t been posting much. Whenever the regularity of my posting on my blog slips below what I consider the minimum required (2 posts a week, me thinks) a sharp guilt begins to gnaw away at my insides and I fear that you, lovely blog reader, will abandon me, as all those insufferable How To Blog Right blog posts assure me you inevitably will. But things are happening behind the scenes (she says mysteriously) that may adversely affect my posting rate between now and the end of the year. I’ll do my best, but if I go missing for a few days, my Twitter stream starts to grow cobwebs or emails go unanswered, you’ll know why: I’m either knee deep in my mysterious commitments, or I’ve bought the final season of 24 on DVD.

Right. Anyway. Last week I mentioned that I spent a tiny fortune on the new Penguin Classic editions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s works, the most beautiful books I ever did see. I was delighted to come across this “Making Of” video on the Penguin blog, my favourite part being the concern that these books end up in good homes:

My books are my most prized possessions. If the house was on fire I would grab (i) people, (ii) my Mac, (iii) my red leather bound, limited to 150, personally inscribed edition of Nine Dragons by Michael Connelly and (iv) however many other books I could feasibly carry. Books to me are like memories: a souvenir of the reading experience, a reminder of a certain time or place in my life, symbolic of that really bad day at work when the only light in my life was a 3 for 2 binge in Waterstones. My ultimate dream is to live in a house brimming with books, and to achieve that dream it means all my books must survive.

The following activities are expressly forbidden when anywhere near my beloved books:

  • Lending. Chances are they won’t come back and if they do, all manner of horrors will have befallen them. Buy your own or join a library. Just leave me and my books alone.
  • Aggressive reading. There is simply no need to crack the spine every time you turn to a new two-page spread, and bending the book back on itself so that you’re only looking at one page at a time is completely uncalled for.
  • Deliberate bending or creasing of pages. BUY A BOOKMARK, YOU SADIST!
  • Writing. If you must make notes, do so in a notebook. If you need to scribble down a note, do not reach for the nearest book. Most of my mum’s books contain shopping lists in the otherwise blank back pages – I’m all for recycling but that is just a crime.
  • Cover sticker roulette. Price tags and Waterstones’ “3 for 2” stickers always come off easily, but you can’t be so sure with “Signed by the author” ones. As there is nothing worse than a sticker that leaves half of itself behind (but not enough to peel off – ugh!) you’re better off just leaving them on.
  • Dust jacket abuse. Just because it’s not part of the book itself doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve your respect. Take it off while you’re reading for maximum carefulness. Also: using the inside flaps for a bookmark is only permitted at the beginning and end of the book; using it to mark your place elsewhere will only pull the dust jacket out of shape.
  • Coffee rings. BUY A COASTER, YOU SADIST!

  • Reading. Yes, reading. In special circumstances, books are not to be read, as the edition has been bought for gazing-at-adoringly purposes only. (I have previously read other editions.) Examples of this: my stunningly beautiful red and black paperback edition of The Stand, the aforementioned F. Scott Fitzgerald books, the signed edition of Generation A by Douglas Coupland which wears my personalized dust jacket,If I could put them in locked display cases, I would.

What do you do – or not do – to your books?