Mapping your plot


A good structural skeleton is achieved  through study, analysis, and hard work. This is one area that is not about some innate gift – yes, there will be delicious flashes of inspiration, but diligence will be a better friend to you.

It is definitely worth doing scene by scene analyses of classic texts – be they novels, film scripts, or plays. This helps you get a feeling for the balance between character development, plot and action. Scriptwriting coaches, such as Robert McKee and Syd Field, are masters of this kind of plot mapping. McKee uses Casablanca. It’s free to download so it’s an easy one for his students to work with.

You can use any book, but you have to know what you’re looking for. Essentially, the structure is largely held up by reversals, those turning points that often come at the end of acts. A narrative won’t keep the reader engaged without them.  A couple of random examples:   Twelfth Night – when Olivia falls for Viola (dressed as a page). Girls aren’t supposed to fall for girls, we’re suddenly topsy turvy, and this narrative turning point propels the next chunk of action. Another one: Life of Pi, when the protagonist moves from being the tiger’s next meal to master of the situation in the lifeboat. Every story has these key plot reversals. So why not take a book, make a chart of the scenes and see whether you can identify these reversals and mark where they appear on your map?

If you want to get to grips with that fine balance between action and character development you can look at a classic novel and log which characters appear when.  I find that writers naturally swing one way or the other:  some concentrate on action and plot and forget to fill in character; others do the opposite, failing to fulfil the need for a sound narrative structure. Again, it is worth studying what the masters do because if either is incomplete, your reader won’t find the book compelling.

Wanda Whiteley, former Publishing Director at HarperCollins, is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of, a literary consultancy


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Dialogue masterclass

How can you advise writers on dialogue? Firstly, I ask them to use their ear; read their dialogue aloud. Those who get it right have what amounts to a musical gift but, frankly, most of us don’t have a knack for it. It takes hard graft to get to a basic level, where  speech doesn’t sound weird. Successfully varying your style for each of your characters is a whole other ballgame. The most common glarer I see is the educated-sounding blue collar worker, and I don’t think I’ve worked with a single writer who’s a whizz at teen speech.

Sometimes writers craft a series of staccato sentences in a stylised thriller style (that can get unbearably annoying if overused) while pairing this with grammatically perfect dialogue. Wrong way round surely?  Who on earth speaks in perfectly constructed sentences with subclauses and connectives etc.?

Other dialogue traps:

Dumping information and backstory into dialogue for convenience with no calculation as to whether this would take place in real speech.

One you often see in second-rate TV dramas is where a professional spells out a procedure to a colleague in the same business, who would darn well know all about it. It helps to deliver information to the viewer but it’s lazy.

‘Writing on the nose’ dialogue, a term that can equally apply to novels as it does to screenplays, is when a character spells stuff out – giving a script an instant leaden quality. Of course, as with any show/tell issue, the reader or viewer would get much more enjoyment if they were able to fill in the gaps for themselves. Robert McKee uses the scene in Sideways where his male protagonist discusses wine to show a master screenwriter at work. The subtext, if you recall this scene, is all about the man’s repressed love, but it is never something that is actually spelt out.

Lastly, please don’t sidestep dialogue – many underconfident writers do. Go for it – and as David Thomas, author of the Sam Carver thrillers, recently advised in a series of tips: ‘Study the masters’ – both novelists and TV and film scriptwriters.

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Agent behaviour

Many commercially savvy agents live by the rule: When going through the day’s post, deal only with those things that make money. The rest can be consigned to the bin, or something rather like it: a pile (often on the floor) that’s usually covered with a thin layer of dust. This forgotten tower of submissions is the heartbreak hotel of first-time authors.

Let’s have a look at the system:

1)      Young graduate opens post/surveys agency inbox. If a submission is from a friend of a friend of the agent, or from someone who sounds important, it’s fished out and popped in the agent’s in-tray.

2)      The rest are placed in the slush pile.

3)      Graduate gets to the slush pile every month or so. The vast majority of supplicants are sent a carefully-worded-so-it-doesn’t-look-standard Standard Rejection Letter

4)      Agent scans everything in their in-tray (or inbox) every day. It might contain one of those things that make money.

The slush pile will occasionally throw up a diamond in the rough. When it does, the graduate will send it through to the agent’s in-tray with a Post-it note: ‘Possible? I liked it!’

Think of it like this:

1)      If you aren’t a celeb and don’t know anyone who knows anyone, you still may stand a chance after a month of hearing nothing.

2)      If you are better-connected, and reckon your MS would have gone straight to the in-tray, then your luck is probably out if you haven’t heard anything in the first couple of days (yes, the agent might be on holiday, or their cat’s died, etc.)

Although the heartbreak hotel pile may well contain some ‘maybes’  – “There’s something about this manuscript, but it’s not quite there” –  any agent or publisher will tell you that those manuscripts that give you a muddled gut feeling won’t make it. They’re the clothes on the rail you finger but aren’t worth the hassle of stripping off to try on.

On a more positive note:  if an author’s query letter cuts a dash, and the first page of their manuscript sings, the agent will pick up the phone. Straightaway.  They’ve got a scent, and they’re off. Agents are entrepreneurs, salespeople; they’re quick, they’re hungry, and they know there may be others hard on their heels.

Wanda Whiteley, former Publishing Director at HarperCollins, is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of, a literary consultancy

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Author’s voice

I know some of you may well be fretting about whether you have a truly unique and individual ‘voice’. Maybe an agent has knocked you back saying that your voice isn’t distinctive enough. Some authors undoubtedly do have strong and recognisable voices  –  but before you imagine that their idiosyncratic style is a gift that is somehow innate, please think again. They have to work at it, and if you were to look at their development from pimply teen to mega-selling author you would see that their writing will (like yours) have ‘come a long way’.

Plenty of successful books don’t have a unique or idiosyncratic voice and sell very well indeed. However, I think it’s fair to say that in order to be a bestseller that stands the test of time you need to have all your ducks in a row: strong and original characters, a compelling story – and a ‘voice’ that is very much your own.

If any of you have been watching the talent show, The Voice, on telly, you will know that there’s an easy correlation to be made. Some singers manage to make cover versions their own, while others can’t raise themselves above the karaoke or wedding singer bar. Some sound like yet another Rihanna, while others have something boldly different to offer. It is really, really hard for artists, whether they’re writers or singers, to come up with something unique and memorable. You only have to listen to Madonna’s very first record, which the producer, worried that she didn’t have enough that was distinctive in her tone, sped up so that her voice had that tinny, piping quality we know so well. (In later records, they felt confident enough to let her be herself and the voice is notably deeper.) Similarly, the Abba girls didn’t have ‘unique’ voices – the sound became distinctive only after Bjorn had layered their voices.

Suffice to say that those authors who do have a distinctive voice (eg. Elmore Leonard, Irving Welch) have gone the extra mile, spending many hours crafting their style to lose any trace of sameyness. It’s a lot of hard graft, not some hand of god miracle.

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For the past week I’ve been working on two thrillers by talented new writers. Interestingly, both suffered from the same tendency to overuse similes. This seems to be a common complaint, which has a whole legacy of education and literature feeding it.

There’s always a risk inherent in making the reader stop and think about the writing that you break the spell of concentration. Similes can clog the narrative and slow its pace. They can be clunky, or make the writing seem melodramatic, frilly, or affected. They can also confuse the reader, who is given two images to wrestle with when they might be better off with one.

A tree’s gnarled roots and whispering leaves might lead the writer to think of a writhing mass of snakes hissing, but do we want or need reptiles in our mind’s eye? If the writer wants to add a sinister edge to the scene is this the best way of doing so? Might the reader prefer the tree without the snakes? Two images inevitably create a pause, and this can be an irritant for the reader who wants to crack on to the next part in the narrative. In the same way that the brain loves to find puns, it also enjoys making associations between images and ideas that connect them. But while this is enjoyable for the writer, it doesn’t always help the reader on their way.

Of course, many of these similes work. And that being the case, how do you, the writer, work out which are effective and which aren’t? All you can do is ask yourself: is this simile actually adding something useful to our understanding of the character or not? Is it a little too clever; a little too clumsy? And if you still can’t decide whether to give it the chop, ask your trusty editor to be the judge.

Of course, good books wouldn’t be the same without similes, and it’s subjective: a simile might work on one person and irritate the pants off another.

Here are a couple of good examples:

“Moments before sleep are when she feels most alive, leaping across fragments of the day, bringing each moment into the bed with her like a child with schoolbooks and pencils.”

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje.  

“Jimmy Smith was moving through the room like an enormous trained mole collecting the empty cans.”

Suttree by Cormac McCarthy

Wanda Whiteley, former Publishing Director at HarperCollins, is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of, a literary consultancy

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The author brand

People love talking about brands. Recently, Orange made an unintelligible move, renaming themselves ‘ee’. This, of course, means nothing to those of us who aren’t in on the secret that this means ‘everything, everywhere’. Orange was one of those really cool brands in its heyday. Was it really a good idea to throw the name away?

In every downturn, publishers also tend to obsess about their imprint logo and brand values. They agonise about whether they need to spend more money on promoting themselves. In the end, though, it always comes down to one bald fact: it barely matters if you have a black swan, an oak tree, or a dodo on a book’s cover. You should be spending every available cent building your authors. They’re the only brand that counts, and many people don’t realise that authors need to be brand-managed with as much care and attention as Coca Cola.

But what if you’re an author, established in one genre but wanting to switch horses? Oh dear, oh dear. Every publisher’s nightmare.

JK Rowling made the bold move into adult fiction, but many authors try in vain to find a publisher to take them on in a new guise. It may not simply be a case of building your brand from scratch: your original author brand, and the values it stands for, might actually damage performance of a new book.

Some authors choose a pseudonym and take their chances. Some may have to take a reduced advance for the new book, but if the venture feels creatively right then switching genres has got to be a good move.

Wanda Whiteley, former Publishing Director at HarperCollins, is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of, a literary consultancy

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Are you an introverted author?

When I attended Bloomsbury’s excellent ‘Self -publishing in the Digital Age’ conference the other week, it occurred to me that there is a glitch inherent in this whole new age of publishing: What if you like writing – you may even be a great writer – but you aren’t the kind of person that likes to blow your own trumpet?

I know many writers who fit that description – who quail at the thought of socialising in large groups or being pushy. And, as I sat in the lecture hall listening to speaker after speaker ramming home the importance of engaging in conversation with readers on the web – through blogging, tweeting, and social media of every kind – I wondered about those writers out there who feel that they would rather jump into a vat of worms than engage in this kind of activity.

Writers aren’t known for their extrovert qualities. That they’ve chosen a profession that involves working alone at home says it all. But here’s the thing: you can write for yourself alone, or for an inner circle of hand-picked individuals – I’m not knocking that – or you can put your head above the parapet and have a go at self-promotion.

One of my favourite childcare authors, the Australian Steve Biddulph, who always takes a child-centred and sensitive approach to child-rearing, surprised me at first when he took a robust stand on the issue of young kids and shyness. The child who clings to your skirts and hides behind you needs to be gently but firmly persuaded to look the other person in the eye and greet them politely. Social skills have to be learned, like holding a knife and fork. So it is with self-promotion in the digital age. Here are a few tips I gleaned from the conference:

  • Spend roughly half your working day marketing your book, including online social media activities
  • Use the 80/20 rule: promote your book for twenty per cent of the time; offer help to others and general conversation for the rest. No-one likes socialising with a ‘taker’ – you need to give as well.
  • It can be fun for a writer to condense their ideas into pithy little tweets
  • You cannot create a bestseller without putting energy into ‘handselling’ and finding your readers. Only after the first thousand copies have been sold will sales start to snowball as the word-of-mouth effect takes hold. Until then you’ve got to work at it.
  • If you find a mainstream publisher, don’t get lazy. You have to hand-sell and socialise just as hard.
  • Give it a go. Don’t say you hate it before you’ve even tried!

If it doesn’t come naturally, just ‘act it’. Think of all those shy actors and comedians on the stage. Just put on your social ‘hat’ and get out there – online and off. Your book deserves to be read!


Wanda Whiteley, former Publishing Director at HarperCollins, is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of, a literary consultancy


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Treading on Toes

Colm Toibin, the Irish novelist, once told one of his writing classes, “You have to be a terrible monster to write. Someone might have told you something they shouldn’t have, and you have to be prepared to use it because it will make a great story. You have to use it even though the person is identifiable. If you can’t do it then writing isn’t for you.” (Nigel Farndale in The Sunday Telegraph).

The good news is that people rarely recognise themselves in a novel’s nastier characters. Humourless, self-serving little git – moi?  I attended a lecture some years ago by a libel QC who said that you were more likely to be tripped up by some detail that appears fairly minor than you are by a lurid description of a person’s viler characteristics. A novelist can find themselves in trouble, unwittingly, by some fluke coincidence. If, say, the paedo in your thriller happens to be a chiropractor called Chris Brown with a clinic in York St, Edinburgh, and, by chance, there really is a person matching that description (but without the criminal element) you could find yourself in deep doo-doos. (And never rely on a disclaimer.)

Several years ago I advised a friend to put her novel in the bottom drawer because it so accurately described her heinous in-laws that I thought they would probably take her to court if it were published. You only have to look at misery memoirs (a genre aptly named ‘victim victories’ in the States) to realise that the pen can be a very powerful weapon. The author of Ugly, a judge herself, was taken to court over her autobiography, which describes how her mother brutalised her as a child. I don’t believe, however, that any book will ever be truly successful if revenge is the author’s chief motivator. It is as Colm Toibin describes:  people and scenes from real life act in service of a wider, universal purpose.

Wanda Whiteley, former Publishing Director at HarperCollins, is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of, a literary consultancy

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Bigging yourself up

If you’ve ever watched Antiques Roadshow you may have noticed how an ordinary Joe, when questioned by a boffin, and with a camera lens in his face, begins to use words he wouldn’t necessarily ‘employ’ (there, I’ve used one). ‘When my great aunt acquired the item she didn’t know what she had purchased.’ Suddenly the guy has a mouthful of marbles and doesn’t sound at all like himself.

William Zinsser, author of the excellent On Writing Well, observes that those mouthful-of-marbles words are particular favourites of ‘passive-voice’ writers. Using passive verbs, like using long words of Latin origin when short Anglo-Saxon ones will do, makes a text turgid and difficult to wade through. Both habits can be born of trying to make your text sound more weighty and clever.

Let’s take an example. Look at the following two sentences. You will see how the latter lacks clarity and punch. (For fun I’ve added a ‘big-up’ word too.)

Lillian found him                     He was located by Lillian

With that passive verb construction in the second sentence you will have noticed that you had to do more work. Instead of the verb pushing the sentence forward and giving it momentum, you probably found yourself clogged up, trying to unscramble who’s doing what, when, and to whom.

We all know that writing is really all about rewriting. So when you’re next tinkering with your manuscript or article do look out for these.

Wanda Whiteley, former Publishing Director at HarperCollins, is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of, a literary consultancy


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Enemy Agent

I met up with a friend last week who was on the third draft of her novel. She said that she had been on a writing course hosted by a well-known literary agency. I asked her how she’d found it. ‘Good,’ she said, but her voice gave a telltale wobble. She had learned a few things, yes. She had also had the stuffing knocked out of her. Why? Because alongside the very competent writing coach there sat an agent.  And what could have been an open, mutually supportive and nurturing group had become one where its members cast furtive glances at each other, trying to work out who was in with a chance.

Let’s face it, an agent isn’t your friend until they decide to confer that honour upon you. They’re like the leader of the ‘it’ crowd in the playground. You hate them until they cast a smiling glance in your direction, and then you instantly become their labrador.

But let’s think about it from the other side too.

Some years ago I spoke to an agent who had been paid to attend an Arvon creative writing holiday. She’d had an uncomfortable week. She said that she’d felt like the enemy. The men were particularly difficult: angry and defensive. Others pursued her. At night she lay in bed listening to the rustling of manuscript pages being pushed through the crack under her door.

When I became a coach I crossed over from enemy lines. As a publisher I’d had to learn to shut the door politely in people’s faces. There are those whose dreams become a reality with your help, but there are plenty more whose dreams get trampled on – it’s is an unpleasant part of the job.

I much prefer being a coach but it doesn’t pay as well. Simon Cowell would tell you that being nasty is where the bucks are …

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