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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Cutting a dash

It is remarkable how much personality a simple punctuation mark conveys.

An exclamation mark suggests a giggling schoolgirl: ‘Oh how funny it was!!!” Of course, the irony of the exclamation mark is that it quickly strips a funny anecdote of its humour. No reader likes to be told, You must find this funny, Ja?!  

The ‘dot, dot, dot’ has the giggling schoolgirl about it too. Overdramatic and a bit uncool. It reminds us of the Mamma Mia diary script, when ‘dot, dot, dot’ is archly used to indicate that the mother has had sex. It also sits comfortably in the toolbox of the ghost-story writer. Then it adds a hammy frisson to the proceedings:   And then the door creaked open … If they had only known what horrors lay in store …

The colon and the semicolon lie at the other end of the spectrum. Writers of popular fiction tend to avoid both of them in case they confer a stuffy or uncreative texture to their work.  I have to admit that I have an affection for them, but the semicolon is widely considered to be a tad academic and old-fashioned, and the colon feels clinical (or maybe I’m just reacting to the word) – and it has widely given way to the dash.

I am in two minds about the dash. I’ll never forget a writing teacher telling me to ‘Cut the dashes, Wanda.’ I am still uncertain whether she asked me to do so because the dash is still considered in some circles as ‘not quite the ticket’  ̶  something a little bit vulgar and new   ̶. or because my dashes spoiled the flow.

Writers are increasingly fond of the dash. And, yes, it can be a neat and useful way of slipping a parenthetical thought into a sentence, or of amplifying a thought that appears in the previous part of your sentence. However, I’d say beware: although not now viewed as uncouth, it has become a favoured tool of the sloppy writer.

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

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Grammar again…

Don’t get confused between a writer’s unique voice and the need, nonetheless, to tidy one’s text so that readers can find their way through it without stumbling around. Working on grammar and structural issues is not going to drown your voice, nor will it stifle your creative juices. In fact, that kind of close work uses entirely different mental muscles. I find that it feels more akin to working on puzzles or crosswords than anything else.

This year many students failed to get their expected grades in English GCSE. Libby Purves, in an article in the Times, raised an issue that, for her, underlies the whole fiasco. For years now, students have not been marked down by examiners when they fail to write clear, correct English. Instead, ‘creativity’ (and, presumably, good ideas) were the sole consideration when they were given their grades. One creative writing teacher I know was bemoaning the fact that so many of her undergraduate students become positively aggressive if she dares to correct their grammar. I asked her if she had thought of using games to make learning it more fun. “Games? God no! I have thought of using an AK47 though.”

Let’s face it, most white-collar professions don’t demand a knowledge of war poetry or Shakespeare. What they do require is the use of clear written English. If your grammatical presentation is good, people might think you’re intelligent, and you could rise through the ranks more quickly. I have a dyslexic client who is in a senior position in the hospitality industry. He doesn’t get aggressive or chippy about the issue of spelling and grammar: he sensibly recognises that his emails, as the company’s interface with the outside world, need to be checked before they go out. It’s just one bit of presentation, like wearing a clean suit or turning up at meetings on time.

And a warning to all those sending out manuscripts to agents or publishers. If your query letter is muddled or grammatically untidy, beware:  the whole thing will probably get thrown in the bin.

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

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Road-testing books

Ben Macintyre, writing in The Times, noted that publishers are using digital feedback they receive, courtesy of Kindle and Kobo, to ‘road-test’ new works. The thing about e-readers is that although they let you read in privacy, they record what you’re reading and can measure your responses: they chart when you slow down or read faster; they know when you get bogged down or give up on a book.

Although it sounds good, I am somewhat doubtful that publishers are actually finding time to analyse the data. But this does raise an interesting point. The publishing industry is almost alone in its tendency to ignore some obvious marketing processes other industries abide by. The film business uses focus groups, as does the music business. SlicethePie is just one company that entices music fans to rate tracks on line, paying them between two and ten cents for a written review. It might strike you as odd that publishers do not use focus groups to pre-test forthcoming books. Instead, a small group of highly educated staff members make decisions on a huge gamut of book genres based on their gut response. Forget market research. Bah! Who needs it?

So that leaves you. If you want to make sure your book is a success why not create your own focus group? Alafair Burke, an American thriller writer, thanks over 500 web fans by name for their help in making various decisions, from thinking up a good title to choosing the best author photo. There is nothing to stop your getting feedback from objective people who are keen readers of your particular genre. The web is a brilliant way of gathering like minds, but local book groups might oblige if you ask.


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A tale of hardship

Let me tell you the story of Linda Cruse, a single mother who changed her life entirely once her children were grown. She is a humanitarian aid worker whose book Marmalade and Machine Guns is out in a couple of weeks. Linda has worked with some of the poorest communities on earth: on rubbish tips in Guatemala, in Burmese refugee camps, and Nepalese mountain villages; as well as with victims of natural disasters: after the earthquake and floods in Pakistan, and the tsunami in Thailand. She has been captured by Maoist rebels and nearly perished from hypothermia on a yak in Tibet.

I wonder if anything has been as hard as trying to find a publisher.

OMG. For a woman used to rolling up her sleeves and getting things done, the endless wait for publishers to make decisions and to return phone calls was agonising. I was almost as frustrated as Linda, having spent a year helping her write the book. Her agent, Sheila Crowley, was tireless and more than once got the book as far as an acquisitions meeting, only to be told that the head of sales didn’t think the story of a humanitarian aid worker would sell. Apparently, local tales of misery work, but not those from third world countries.

Finally, the publisher John Blake came to Linda’s rescue, willing to take a punt. And tomorrow the Daily Mail kicks off the publicity campaign, after a lively serial auction. Yay!!

Good luck, Linda!

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

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